Denard Robinson Shines as Michigan Starter; Tate Forcier Demoted to Third String

After months of speculation, the Michigan quarterback depth chart was revealed yesterday as the Wolverines took on Connecticut to open the season and won 31-10. True sophomore Denard Robinson got the start and took all but two snaps—true freshman Devin Gardner filled in when Robinson was banged up late in the third quarter. True sophomore Tate Forcier, who started every game for the Wolverines last year, did not play.

It was only one game, but we learned a lot about the Michigan quarterback situation. Starting with, well, the starter and moving our way down the depth chart, here’s what we learned from Saturday.

Denard Robinson
The spring reports were confirmed on Michigan’s opening drive. Before Saturday, you could question Rich Rodriguez’s decision to start Robinson, but not anymore. Robinson’s numbers were off the charts: 19/22, 186 yards, 1 TD passing; 29 carries for 197 yards and 1 TD rushing. The rushing yards were a single-game Michigan record for a QB. The completions were five more than he had all of last season. The one-trick pony from a year ago is suddenly a legitimate dual-threat.

Robinson’s improved throwing motion was noticeable from his first pass. His accuracy, confidence, and decision-making have all improved greatly. The team clearly supports him. He’s an electrifying player, no doubt, and perhaps his biggest asset is that he makes the defense better, too—by keeping it off the field.

Uninformed critics of Rodriguez’s hiring were upset that Michigan was abandoning years of “power football” for the spread offense. But the spread comes in many forms, and yesterday Michigan ran the ball nearly three times more than it threw.

My guess is that number will shift closer to a 50/50 balance as teams realize they have to try and contain Robinson. Connecticut challenged Robinson to beat them with his arm a few times, and he responded by finding receivers down the field. Can he consistently do that?

Devin Gardner
It’s way too early to tell, but as of right now I disagree with Rodriguez’s decision to make Gardner the No. 2. I simply don’t get it. Robinson is the clear starter, fine. But if he were to get hurt, would you rather have a complete unknown or an experienced and competent player as your back-up?

Of course, Rodriguez and his staff have the advantage of watching Gardner (and Forcier) on a daily basis. I do not. But like Rodriguez I saw Forcier in Michigan’s 12 games last season and for the most part, he performed better than expected. I’d be surprised if Gardner could perform that well if forced into meaningful playing time, but maybe I’m wrong.

I do know that Rodriguez is taking a big gamble by making Gardner the second string quarterback. Not only is Gardner a true freshman, but now Forcier, the guy last year, is a non-factor.

(L to R) Gardner, Forcier, and Robinson warm up before Michigan’s Spring Game. (Credit: Pep Sucharikul)

Tate Forcier
Let the transfer rumors begin. It’s pretty incredible how the quarterback who started every game last season has fallen to third on the depth chart. At any point last season it would have been hard to imagine Forcier not starting this season, but the emergence of Robinson put an end to that thought.

I know it’s only one game, but at this point the lone advantage Forcier has on Robinson is experience. And it’s not like Robinson didn’t take any critical snaps last season. Forcier may have looked fast against a slow Notre Dame defense last season, but he does not have turn-the-corner speed. He can’t burst through holes like Robinson can (in all fairness, can anyone?) and turn five-yard runs into 15-yard gains.

Once defenses realized Forcier was far more effective outside of the pocket, they made it a priority to contain him, and that’s when we learned that Forcier is not much of a pocket passer. Last season, when it came to decision-making and accuracy, Forcier was light years ahead of his back-up. After watching Robinson fire missiles between his receivers’ numbers against UConn, I think he has surpassed Forcier as a passer.

Again, I completely understand Rodriguez’s decision to start Robinson (anyone who watched yesterday’s game should, too), but I am confused by Forcier’s fall to third string. Was it a statement move by the coach to spark a fire under the incumbent starter? I don’t think so, since burning Gardner’s redshirt is more than a minor casualty. I would think Forcier would have to be at least slightly better than the freshman version of himself, but even if he didn’t improve at all, my guess is he’s still better than the young Gardner. I hope we don’t have to find out.

It’s important to remember that, again, it was only one game. Last year, Forcier looked a star for the first five games before he started to look like a true freshman. The Wolverines started 4-0 (and got to 5-2) before collapsing down the stretch and failing to qualify for a bowl game. Defenses will tailor their schemes to Robinson, and how he and the rest of the Michigan offense respond will determine how good this offense really is.

At least for one game though, against a supposedly quality opponent, Michigan’s offense looked like a well-oiled machine.

Big Ten Realignment; Media Overreactions

This year has not been a good one for sportswriters. With stories breaking on Twitter, the journalism landscape has changed quite a bit just in the last few years. But I think there are several guidelines that were applicable in 1950 and 1990 that are still applicable in 2010. For example, getting the story right is pretty important.

In 2010, I feel it’s not always about being accurate. It’s about being first. In 1950, this would have made more sense to me. Being the first really meant something back then. If your newspaper broke a story, nobody else could take ownership of it. It wouldn’t be until the next day—a full 24 hours!—that another paper could relay that news.

But now that we live in a 24-hour news cycle, does it even matter that much to be first? Any “breaking news” tweet gets retweeted in some form or another by a thousand different people. How you came about piece of information is likely different from how I came to that same bit of info. By the time the news becomes official, who even remembers where they first heard it?

The most prominent examples of sportswriters jumping the gun this year involved NCAA Tournament expansion, NBA free agency, and most recently, Big Ten realignment.

If you think back to the Final Four weekend, it was reported by many news outlets that a 96-team Tournament was a “done deal.” Enjoy the Duke-Butler game, they told us, because starting next year the Tournament won’t be the same. The NCAA was going for a quick cash grab, blind to the fact that fans would rebel and the greatest event in American sports would lose most of its luster.

Except, of course, it didn’t happen. The NCAA—whether it was their plan all along or their response to the public outrage—announced it would expand, but only to 68 teams. The door was left open for further expansion down the road, but March Madness is safe at least for 2011.

This offseason’s NBA free agency—also known as The Summer of LeBron—was even worse. At least with the NCAA Tournament, most media outlets were reporting the same inaccurate report. Free agency brought about dozens of false reports: LeBron is going to Chicago. Chris Paul and Carmelo are headed to New York. Wade is going to Chicago. LeBron is definitely staying in Cleveland.

Every report started with these four magic words: “Trusted sources tell me.” It became a joke. Everyone was lying to everyone, something that the public realized before journalists did.

The sports media jumped to conclusions regarding the Big Ten conference realignment, too. To be fair, many outlets got the two divisions correct. But Michigan and Ohio State fans were enraged over the report that “The Game” between the Wolverines and Buckeyes would not longer be played at the end of the season, as it had been every year but one since 1935.

Last year’s Game was played at the end of the regular season. It will stay there for at least the next two years, despite initial media reports.

The Michigan-OSU situation was very similar to NCAA Tournament expansion. Going by statements from the two schools’ athletic directors, it seemed like The Game would be moved. Much like after hearing NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen speak at the Final Four, many thought a 96-team field was inevitable. Likewise, the NCAA left the door open for further expansion in upcoming years. The Big Ten assured fans that The Game would remain at the end of the regular season through 2012, but the issue may be revisited at that time.

Did the Big Ten gauge the feedback and decide it was a bad move? Did they plan to split UM and OSU into different divisions all along, but never planned to move the date of their matchup? Or had they yet to make up their minds?

We’ll never know. But we do know not to believe the media reports until they are made official. Maybe the media will take a page out of the NCAA and Big Ten playbook: take note of our disapproval and change accordingly.

2010 NL Triple Crown Race: Albert Pujols vs. Joey Votto

The last Triple Crown winner was Carl Yastrzemski, who accomplished the feat for the Boston Red Sox in 1967. In the National League specifically, the drought is even longer: no player has done it since Joe Medwick in 1937. But this season, two legitimate contenders—St. Louis’ Albert Pujols and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto—are vying for the prestigious title.

Medwick, a Cardinal like Pujols, hit .374 with 31 home runs and 154 RBI 73 years ago. Nicknamed “Ducky” and “Muscles” during his playing days, Medwick lived a full life yet died 35 years ago. The Triple Crown is not an easy accomplishment.

So will it happen this year? Will Pujols or Votto win the unofficial award that has eluded major leaguers for more than 40 years? Let’s take a look at the numbers, updated for games played through August 31:

Player Batt. Avg.     RBI Home Runs
     Albert Pujols .316 95 35
Joey Votto .327 97 32
      Adam Dunn      .263      84 33
   Carlos Gonzalez      .326      91 29
      Martin Prado      .317      58 15

As you can see, Pujols and Votto are at or near the top in each category. They will likely fight for the Triple Crown (and the MVP award) right through to the final week of the season.

Which player has the upper hand? If experience counts for anything, Pujols has been here before. Except for 2007, the Cardinals’ star has been in the top five in all three categories each year since 2003; three times he has been in the top three of each. Despite this amazing consistency, Pujols has obviously never won the Triple Crown.* He’s put himself in position year after year, but hasn’t been able to do it, which shows just how difficult it is.

*Pujols did win the National League Triple Crown for the decade though, leading the league in homers, RBI, and average for the 00s. This has only happened twice, most recently when Ted Williams did it in the AL in the 1940s. But again, Pujols never captured the Crown for a single season.

Votto, on the other hand, is having a breakout season. He’s a lifetime .314 hitter, but this is only his third full season in the majors and the first time he’s hit more than 25 homers. He and Pujols are similar in that their power numbers are the same at home and away, but both hit for a significantly higher average on the road. Starting on September 1, St. Louis will have two more home games than road games, while the Reds will be on the road two extra games. It seems insignificant, but in a race this tight, every advantage helps.

Stephen Rhodes of The Reds Report points to the players’ opponents as well. He notes the Reds’ two series against St. Louis and San Diego, the top two pitching staffs (as far as ERA) in the league.

“I think that Votto should be fine in terms of HR and RBI; however, I am not so certain that he can keep up in the batting average race,” Rhodes wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. “If he can have a good series against both the Cardinals and Padres, then the Crown is within reach.”

If Votto can simply stay afloat against those tough pitchers, perhaps he can make up ground in the six games against Milwaukee (third worst staff) or four against Arizona (second worst).

Pujols, meanwhile, gets six games against the Pirates, the worst pitching team in baseball, and six against the Cubs (fourth worst). St. Louis does have a four-game series with Atlanta, which has the league’s third-best staff.

“All year, there have been stories and questions concerning Pujols’ production,” wrote Ryne Gery of Redbird Rants. “He had the worst slump of his career early on and he said the whole summer that he just didn’t feel comfortable at the plate. Yet his numbers were right there. He never fell far below .300 but his year didn’t have the same dominant feel to it that we’ve gotten used to. He’s had to battle a little bit at the plate and make more adjustments.”

Gery also made the astute observation that since steroid testing was implemented, players no longer need to hit 50-plus long balls to win the home run category. This gives more complete players like Pujols and Votto a better chance at winning the Triple Crown.

Pujols, left, and Votto are racing towards a Triple Crown. (Credit: Djh57, Pujols; BubbaFan, Votto)

While Rhodes was skeptical about Votto winning the batting title, Gery is a bit more optimistic about his guy. “I think Pujols has a great chance to win the Triple Crown and I think it will go down to the last few days of the season,” he wrote. “I would make Pujols the favorite considering his track record.”

The X-factor in all of this is a utility man with 44 career home runs. One of the most controversial All Star choices in recent history, Atlanta Braves supersub-turned-leadoff hitter Omar Infante is hitting .341 for the season. His name doesn’t show up on the above chart because he’s not a lock to reach the minimum requirement of 502 plate appearances. (And if a player with the highest average in a league fails to meet that requirement, the remaining at-bats needed for qualification are considered hitless at-bats; if his recalculated batting average keeps him in first, he is awarded the batting title.)

However, Infante has been an everyday player since the end of July and getting plenty of trips to the plate. He could play spoiler in this exciting Triple Crown race. “Some of it might have to do with how he is pitched down the stretch,” writes Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club. “He has generally fared better against right-handed pitchers—2010 being no exception—and hits fastballs very well. He’s been quite fortunate to have hit .341 thus far, but it’s not unreasonable to think if he keeps the average above .340 he’ll win the title—even if he doesn’t reach the 502 plate appearance mark.”

If Infante doesn’t crash the party though, baseball fans have a good shot at witnessing history, something that Pujols may also have on his side. Not only was a Cardinal the last player to achieve the feat, but the only player to do it twice—Rogers Hornsby, in 1922 and 1925—also did it for St. Louis. No Reds player has even won the Triple Crown.

In addition to the individual achievements, the Cards and Reds are battling for the NL Central division title. St. Louis is seven games back but this weekend’s series will provide an opportunity to gain ground. Both players have obviously been instrumental to their team’s success. “In terms of Votto’s value to the Reds, it would be an understatement to say that he is the team’s MVP.” Rhodes wrote. “And what’s scary is that, at age 26, he is only going to get better.”

Perhaps we’ll see these two Senior Circuit stars compete for the Crown for several more years. As for this season? I predict it will not happen. Pujols and Votto haven’t separated themselves enough from the rest of the league, yet alone each other, to presume one will sweep the categories.

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Stephen Strasburg Injury: Will He Recover from Tommy John Surgery?

It’s a crying shame, no doubt about it. But we had to see it coming or at least not be surprised by it. After all, we’re familiar with the list: Mark Prior, Ben McDonald, Generation K, Mark Mulder…

So while the news that Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg will likely need Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of this season and all of 2011 is terribly upsetting, it’s not shocking.

Of course, that’s the last thing the Nationals’ management wants to hear.

CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell provides great information on the economics of Strasburg. Rovell says that Strasburg’s starts brought in over 10,000 additional fans to Nationals Park, which translates to more than $320,000 (extra) in ticket sales per start. Strasburg made seven starts, so that’s about $2.3 million. Throw in concessions and parking and you arrive at an estimated $3 million.

The Nationals gave Strasburg the largest contract ever for a drafted player when they agreed to pay him $15.1 million over four years, half of which was paid as a signing bonus. All of that money is guaranteed.

Strasburg was on his way to recouping at least the bonus in 2010 alone. But the injury will ensure that he won’t give the Nats any return on their investment until 2012.

From the teams’ perspective, Strasburg’s injury is yet another example of why no pitcher deserves that kind of guaranteed money. So many of them get injured (and, believe it or not, some stay healthy and still don’t blossom into stars) that it’s hard to justify giving a pitcher such a big contract.

Strasburg during his MLB debut, easily the most-hyped of the last 20 years. (Credit: dbking)

Strasburg, though, is such a unique case. He was hyped up so much and was so good in his limited action that the buzz he generated translated into millions for his franchise. If Strasburg can in fact come back and pitch in 2012—more on that in a bit—and create the same type of excitement in Washington, DC (I hesitate to call them “Nationals fans”) that he did in his debut season, he could still prove to be worth the investment.

The Effects of Tommy John Surgery

In an ironic twist, Jordan Zimmermann started for the Washington Nationals the day before the team announced the extent of Strasburg’s injury. Nationals Strasburg fans feeling as if their world is over should look to Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery in August of 2009. His road to complete recovery took a full year, but no longer.

Given that Strasburg will have surgery even later in the year than Zimermann did, it’s reasonable to assume that even if he were ready to go by September 2011 he would not return to the Nationals’ rotation until Opening Day 2012. In other words, even with an unusually long recovery he should be able to meet his expected return date.

But will he be the same? We’ve all heard this before: No two surgeries are alike. But given his skills and competitiveness, there are some comparable pitchers to analyze.

If there’s truly nothing wrong with Strasburg’s shoulder and it’s simply his elbow that needs work, it’s fair to expect he’ll make a full recovery. Modern medicine is an incredible thing, and has recently done wonders for a long list of aces.

Player Date of Surgery Date of Return
Josh Johnson August 2007 July 2008
Chris Carpenter April 2007 July 2008
Tim Hudson    August 2008  September 2009
A.J. Burnett       April 2003       June 2004
Jaime Garcia  after 2008 season  September 2009
Ryan Dempster    August 2003  September 2004
Carl Pavano       May 2007       July 2008
Shaun Marcum  September 2008       July 2009

As this table shows, Strasburg should be ready to pitch next September, but unless the Nats are miraculously competing for a playoff spot, there’s absolutely no reason to let him pitch in the majors until 2012.

The pitchers on this list not only came back somewhere around 12 months after having Tommy John surgery, but returned to pre-injury form. Johnson, the Florida Marlins ace, is an incredible story. He was in the big leagues only 11 months after surgery and went 7-1 that season. He was a 15-game winner a season ago and currently sports a 2.36 ERA.

Hudson is having an even better season. His 2.24 ERA is third best in the league. In St. Louis, a pair of “Tommy Johners” are performing well. Carpenter, second in the Cy Young voting last season, has 14 wins and sub-3 ERA. Garcia, who pitched in the minors last year before earning a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation at the start of this season, is a favorite for the Rookie of the Year award.

Over in the American League, Pavano is having a nice comeback season with Minnesota (15 wins). Marcum, who like Garcia first returned to the minors before being named Toronto’s Opening Day starter in 2010, is also pitching well—he had a one-hitter earlier this month.

Skeptics will point to pitchers like Mike Hampton, B.J. Ryan, and Darren Dreifort, guys who never returned to pre-injury form after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But it seems that for most pitchers who had the surgery in the past 10 years, there is usually an explanation when it doesn’t work out. Hampton had several other injuries, as did Dreifort, who missed time for knee, hip, and shoulder problems. Ryan’s velocity never really returned, but he had such an unconventional throwing motion that it’s possible he had shoulder issues as well.

Consider this: nine pitchers selected to the 2010 All Star game—including standout closers Billy Wagner, Joakim Soria, and Brian Wilson—had Tommy John surgery at some point.

My guess: Strasburg comes back and is just as effective as before. Like Prior, Strasburg does have a lot of “arm action” in his delivery, so whether he re-injures his arm like Prior did several times (although he never had Tommy John surgery) is another story.

Note: I wasn’t going to mention Rob Dibble, but I couldn’t help myself. For those of you who don’t know, Dibble is a former major league pitcher who is now the color commentator for the Washington Nationals television network.

My friend Eric, who lives in DC, made me aware of Dibble’s shenanigans months ago. Forced to listen to him if he wants to watch baseball on TV, Eric described Dibble as a huge homer who constantly shouts ridiculous phrases. While watching online video highlights of a Mets-Nats game a few months ago, I was able to confirm this. More recently, I came across an article pointing out how Dibble argues with the home plate umpire despite replays showing the calls were clearly correct.

Dibble is one of many (but perhaps the most frustrating example) who gets paid to cover sports despite being severely unqualified. It obviously helps that Dibble was a big leaguer—a two-time All Star who had a blazing fastball and a nasty temper, but whose career was cut short because of arm injuries.

Dibble’s own career path makes his latest statement on Strasburg even more troubling. In response to Strasburg’s removal from last weekend’s game against the Phillies, Dibble, on his Sirius XM Radio show (this guy is employed by two organizations?!) said, “OK, you throw a pitch, it bothers your arm, and you immediately call out the manager and the trainer? Suck it up, kid. This is your profession. You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow.”

He wasn’t done. “Stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.” There’s more, but you get the point. Dibble got hammered by the media for his comments even before it was announced that Strasburg would need surgery. Now that it’s clear—as if it wasn’t already—that Strasburg was not “crying” about nothing, Dibble looks like an even bigger fool, if that’s possible.

To their credit, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network has removed Dibble from the broadcast booth since he made his ridiculous comments, and it was recently announced he wouldn’t be making the upcoming road trip either.

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New York Mets 2006-2010

For me, the reminders are everywhere. Some are subtle, like the background picture on my laptop. It’s a photo of my golden retriever and me celebrating my 21st birthday in August of 2007. We’re both so happy, because the Mets were marching towards their second straight divisional title.

Then there’s the 2007 Mets media guide that is in my bathroom. Every time I use the toilet, shower, or brush my teeth I see it. The 3 x 2 photo grid on the cover is saddening. There’s Carlos Beltran, holding his pointer finger in the air. There’s Tom Glavine, wearing a 2006 NL East Division Champs shirt and cap, with a smile that says, “Yeah, I’ve done this 15 times before but it never gets old.” There’s Carlos Delgado, wearing the same attire, though looking even happier since he was in his 14th season and about to play in his first playoff series.

There’s Billy Wagner and Paul Lo Duca, the spokesmen of the team, embracing near the mound with the unbridled joy of a couple of little leaguers. There’s David Wright and Jose Reyes, looking a bit more serious as they perform a choreographed handshake. And there’s Willie Randolph, displaying the biggest smile of them all, most likely after one of the Mets’ 103 total victories that season.

Oh, how I miss the joy of 2006 and the optimism that lasted through August of 2007. The joy and optimism that beams from the media guide. The joy and optimism that, like many of the characters on the guide’s cover, are no longer associated with the Mets organization.

It’s hard to imagine how far the franchise has fallen since that magical year, a year which could’ve been even sweeter. The Mets were one game away from a trip to the World Series. It’s pointless to play this game, but given how poorly the Detroit Tigers played against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Mets would have likely won the franchise’s third World Series title.1

While the starters were nothing spectacular that year, the Mets rarely blew leads. Unlike more recent seasons, the ’06 team had a tremendous bullpen. Of the five relievers used most often, only Aaron Heilman (it still annoys me just to type his name) had an ERA over 3. Wagner was awesome, converting 40/45 save opportunities, but it was the bridge to him that defined this bullpen.

(Here are some numbers to prove my point: In 2006, when the Mets were leading entering the sixth inning, they lost a total of 18 games. In 2007, this number jumped to 31. In 2008, the year in which the Mets operated with the worst bullpen I have ever seen, they blew 52 of these leads. In fact, they blew 20 leads just from the eighth inning on.)

Chad Bradford was the submarining righty specialist who, get this, could actually pitch to lefties as well. Pedro Feliciano, the only reliever still with the team, was the phenomenal lefty specialist. Darren Oliver was the long man, and the best in baseball that season in my opinion. And of course there was Duaner Sanchez, who kept getting more and more responsibility until Willie realized he was the second best arm in the ’pen and made him the set-up guy.

Duaner was a fan favorite in ’06. People loved his energy, his throwing motion, his glasses, and of course, his excellent performance. My older brother went as far as requesting Duaner’s #50 jersey as a gift that summer.

The jersey wasn’t a hot commodity for very long. On a Sunday night in Florida, less than 24 hours before the trade deadline, the cab Sanchez was riding in was hit by a drunk driver. Sanchez’s shoulder was injured and it was apparent to the Mets he wasn’t going to be returning that season. Forced to replace a key component of the bullpen, Omar Minaya traded useful outfielder Xavier Nady to the Pirates for reliever Roberto Hernandez and, as a throw-in, Oliver Perez.

Hernandez was decent, pitching to a 3.48 ERA in 22 appearances for the Mets, but he was not as trusted as Sanchez, unable to lock down the eighth-inning role and appearing in only three postseason games, never in an important situation.

The effect of Sanchez’s unfortunate injury was two-fold. One, I honestly believe it cost the Mets the 2006 World Series. The bullpen was perfect with Sanchez, but without him it forced Heilman into a more important role, one he couldn’t handle.

Secondly, while the trade also brought Perez—who made two critical starts for the Mets in the NLCS and won 15 games the following year—it also, well, brought Perez, who was really bad in 2008, atrocious in 2009, and a financial drain this year and next. Someone else could’ve started those playoff games. Someone else could’ve helped the Mets not make the playoffs in ’07 and ’08. Ask anybody who follows the Mets and they’ll tell you know that the franchise would be far better off had Perez never joined the team.2

Even without words, Mr. Met says so much. Shown here during the Mets’ 70-win 2009 season. (Credit: Andrew Kahn)

Perez alone was not responsible for the Mets’ collapses in ’07 and ’08. Remember, the offense and bullpen were so good during that incredible ’06 season. So what happened? To make a long story short, many of the hitters simply had a worse season.3

One player who was a pleasant surprise, though, was 37-year-old Jose Valentin. Valentin took over the starting job at second base in the summer of ’06 and never looked back, providing more offense than anyone expected from the position. He was also said to be a clubhouse leader. I don’t doubt this, because another turning point of the Mets franchise—and this one is not mentioned nearly enough—is Valentin’s injury in late July.

The similarities between Valentin’s and Sanchez’s injuries are apparent. Much like after Sanchez got hurt, Minaya was forced to act shortly before the deadline to acquire a replacement for the inevitable playoff push. He traded two minor leaguers for Minnesota’s Luis Castillo.

In the short term, Castillo was a great pick-up, bringing stability to the middle of the infield in place of Valentin. In his 50 games with the Mets that season, he hit nearly .300, scored 37 runs, stole 10 bases, and hardly ever struck out. Much like the Sanchez deal, this was a savvy move by Minaya. Castillo played well and, as a bonus, the prospects the Mets parted with turned out to be low-impact players.

The problem, of course, was the contract Minaya offered at season’s end. Castillo was a player who had always relied on speed and scrappiness, but he was 32 at the end of the ’07 season. This didn’t stop Minaya from overbidding for Castillo, giving him a four-year, $25 million deal. That is unconscionable, given that Castillo would be 36 at the end of the contract. His speed (and defensive range) faded, and for whatever reason (the big contract, maybe?) his scrappiness was gone, too.

Watching the 2008 version of Castillo induced Little League flashbacks. Castillo was like the worst kid on your team, the kid who knows he can’t get a hit so he enters the batter’s box praying for a walk. That’s what Castillo did for 87 games in 2008. His batting average was a career low .245. He still managed to walk 50 times despite showing an inability to hit the ball out of the infield. He was overweight, out of shape, and useless both offensively and defensively.

In his defense, Castillo did have a bounce-back year in ’09. In a season where seemingly every other Met missed considerable time, Castillo played in over 140 games and hit over .300. Of course by July nobody was watching. We were watching at the start of this season, only to discover Castillo had returned to 2008 form.

Perez, as I mentioned before, seemed to carry the momentum from that memorable NLCS Game 7 start into the following season. He struck out a batter per inning and reduced his walks. His 15 wins and 3.56 ERA were very respectable for someone the Mets anticipated to be a back-of-the-rotation pitcher.

Perez won arbitration in the offseason and raked in $6.5 million for a season in which he had a 4.22 ERA and walked over 100 batters. By midseason, Mets fans were very uncomfortable when Perez took the mound. They never knew whether “good Ollie” or “bad Ollie” would show up. His middle name was Inconsistent.

How did Minaya reward this erraticism? With a multi-year mega-deal. The exact numbers: three years, $36 million.

Perez rewarded the Mets faith by showing up to Spring Training in terrible shape, then not using that period to get in shape. He was overweight and had lost considerable velocity on his fastball. His control had somehow gotten even worse.4

In 14 starts in 2008, Perez’s ERA was 6.82. He walked nearly eight batters per nine innings, though he never made it anywhere close to the ninth inning of a game. Only twice did he pitch into the seventh. In eight starts he did not make it past the fifth. Keep in mind that like ’07, the Mets missed the playoffs by one game this season. A minor league starter chosen at random from the Mets’ farm system could have helped the team more in 14 starts than Perez did.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that these two unfathomable contracts expire after next season. If the Mets can somehow find a taker for either one (I actually think a team might bite on Castillo this winter; no chance Perez gets dealt), then 2010 could be the last time they appear in a Mets uniform.

The fact that either was allowed to don the orange and blue for this long should ensure that the man who made it happen is sent packing at season’s end.

1(2006) The consolation prize was not too shabby: The Mets ended the Atlanta Braves’ 14-year run atop the division, winning their first title since 1988, and advancing to the NLCS before losing that epic seventh game to St. Louis.

The offense that season was off the charts: Beltran hit 41 home runs; Delgado blasted 38. Three players accumulated at least 100 RBI. Two Mets finished in the top 10 in the league in batting (Lo Duca and Wright). Reyes led all of baseball in triples and stolen bases. The core—Beltran, Wright, and Reyes—and the only three hitters who are still with the team today, all finished in the top 10 for the league MVP.

The pitching was not excellent, but it was good enough. Steve Trachsel (with an ERA just a hair under 5) and Tom Glavine each won 15 games. Pedro Martinez started 5-0 but injuries derailed his season. He wasn’t the same after matching Arizona ace Brandon Webb pitch for pitch in a late May game the Mets ended up winning 1-0 in 13 innings.

Pedro was absolutely masterful that night. He pitched eight scoreless, striking out just as many and only allowing five baserunners. Webb was equally dominant, showing why he won the Cy Young that season. It was Endy Chavez, a name Mets fans will never forget, who finally won the game with a single.

I attended this game with some friends for $5. That’s right, upper deck seats for select “value” games at Shea Stadium were $5, even if the Mets were in first and it was Pedro vs. Webb. I wrote an article about this game for a very local paper, though it was never published. My dad came up with the clever headline: “38 Cents Per Inning.”

Orlando Hernandez joined the Mets from Arizona shortly before that game, and was serviceable in 20 starts, baffling hitters by drastically changing speeds. “El Duque” was stellar in September, and thus was named the starter for the Mets’ first playoff game since 2000. He tore a muscle doing some light running the day before the game, though, and was scratched from the postseason roster.

Replacing Hernandez was John Maine, who helped the Mets win the opener against the Dodgers and earned the win in Game Six of the NLCS. Oliver Perez, of course, was called on to pitch the most important (and, as it would turn out, the last) game of the season, and performed admirably, aided by Chavez’s miracle catch.

2(2010) In fact, I conducted a casual poll on Twitter asking Mets fans and bloggers which current Mets player they disliked the most. Jeff Francoeur, Luis Castillo, and Francisco Rodriguez were mentioned, but the overwhelming “winner” was Perez. Responses noted that he is selfish, unmotivated, and of course, overpaid. Interestingly, several people noted that they had wished the question included any Met employee because they disliked Minaya more than any player.

3(2007) To keep a long story long, let’s take a deeper look. The future had become the present as Reyes and Wright once again had monster years. Reyes saw drop-offs in his average (20 points), RBI, and power, but his OBP remained the same due to added plate discipline and he actually stole 14 more bases (a whopping 78). I believe it was during this season that a Sports Illustrated poll of GMs listed Reyes as the guy most likely to be taken No. 1 if all players were thrown into a draft.

Wright improved across the board as well. He hit for more power (reaching the 30-HR plateau for the first time), stole more bases (34, up 14 from ’06), and won his first Gold Glove (although people who watched Wright on a daily basis, like I did, will tell you it probably wasn’t deserved).

The homegrown boys were challenging their cross-town counterparts—Jeter and A-Rod—for the best left side of the infield in baseball.

Even at the time, at the height of his awesomeness, I remember thinking this was a bit ridiculous. Were they forgetting a certain Cardinals slugger? Through 2006 (six seasons), Albert Pujols averaged 40 homers, 123 RBI, and .332 batting average. He had already won an MVP and turned himself into a Gold Glove first baseman.

If the poll was in fact taken during that ’07 season, Pujols was only 27 years old at the time. Reyes had turned 24 that summer and had established himself as a five-tool player. Scouts thought he could hit 20 homers a season and steal 60 bases. These optimistic projections were a reality for Pujols, so it was, to say the least, premature for GMs to vote for Reyes. Even so, it shows exactly how high Reyes’ stock was at the time.

As for the rest of the lineup? Well, the term “career year” exists for a reason, and the Mets had an abundance of them in ’06. Lo Doca’s batting average and on-base percentage each dropped about 40 points in 2007. Delgado’s 38 homers and 114 RBI became 24 and 87, respectively. Beltran regressed towards his career average—his batting average remained the same but his slugging and OBP dropped significantly.

The corner outfielders were Shawn Green (acquired late in the ’06 season) and Moises Alou, an off-season acquisition. Their best years were certainly behind them, and while Alou was productive when he was in the lineup, injuries prevented him from reaching even the 90-game mark. Endy Chavez was a suitable replacement but not someone you want playing everyday.

4(2010) In case you don’t know about how Perez has fared this season, go ahead and look it up. It was hard enough writing about his ’09 campaign—I couldn’t bring myself to waste time on his seven starts in 2010.

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Fantasy Baseball 2010: Stephen Strasburg, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez

Backstabbing. Rejections. Trash talking.

It’s not a reality TV show; it’s my fantasy baseball league.

Stephen Strasburg’s first start for the Washington Nationals was as hyped as any baseball debut in the last 20 years. His arrival into my fantasy league was equally dramatic. One manager, Lee, was unaware that you could add a minor leaguer to your roster. Griffin, also a manager and Lee’s good friend, made him aware of this, saying he had planned to pick up Strasburg later that day. Except Lee, armed with this new knowledge, didn’t give him a chance: He picked up Strasburg that instant.

Of course that is Grifin’s version of the story. Ask Lee and he’ll tell you he respectfully avoided picking up Strasburg, giving Griff ample time to make the claim. When he failed to act, Lee jumped at the chance.

Strasburg has been in Lee’s starting lineup ever since, and much like Strasburg’s real-life team, Lee’s squad is in last place. That’s mostly because players like Andy Pettitte, who’s been on the DL since mid-July, and Geovany Soto, who’s been out for the last couple of weeks, have also been in his starting lineup for most of the year. Cleveland starter Fausto Carmona has hit a rough patch lately, but it doesn’t affect Lee’s team: Carmona hasn’t come off the bench since June.

Lee isn’t alone in his disinterest. I’m sad to report that only three of the eight teams in my league have been active from the draft until now. Perhaps even sadder, two of the inactive teams are in first and third. I’m in fourth as I write this, but the standings are tight enough that by the time you’re reading this I could be in second. Of course that’s not saying much given that I’m only competing against two active teams.

Two of the inactive teams have co-managers, which means two people are ignoring their rosters. One of these teams is managed by my younger brother and his friend. Although their team is close in several pitching categories, they failed to move Felix Hernandez or Tim Hudson off the bench for recent starts. They missed a complete game one-hitter by Toronto’s Shaun Marcum last night.

In third place, currently ahead of two active teams, is The gators. Perhaps the most interesting team in my league, neither of the two co-managers have bothered to do much of anything since the draft. In late May they finally dropped Rich Harden and minor-leaguer Aroldis Chapman. In late June they made a couple more pitching changes.

Other than that, nothing. Manny Ramirez has been in their starting lineup despite two very long stints on the DL. The gators have three bench hitters, but never make substitutions on off-days, so those players are worthless. Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen came up in conversation recently, and one of The gators’ owners chimed in. “I love him,” he said. “He’s on my fantasy team.” The problem with this statement? I drafted McCutchen and he’s been in my lineup all season. Keep in mind that I trail this team in the standings.

For unknown reasons, my co-manager and I both targeted Jeff Niemann before the draft. We got him in the 23rd round and he’s been stellar, posting 10 wins, a 3.12 ERA and 102 K’s. (Credit: daysofthundr46)

Two of the other active teams have taken advantage of the league’s apathy and amassed an abundance of closers. My friend John has a whopping nine closers on his team. Another manager has five. In fact, three of the teams in my league own 20 of MLB’s 30 closers.

Both of these guys love to pull the old “offer and drop” technique as well. They’ll offer, say, Curtis Granderson in what seems like a lopsided deal. You’ll turn it down, and the next day Granderson will be available as a free agent. No, there’s not much pride in my league.

If I’m going to air my opponents’ dirty laundry, it’s only fair I admit to my own sleaze. During a fellow manager’s birthday party, my co-manager and I took advantage of his inebriation and offered Mark Reynolds — and his .212 batting average — for Alex Rodriguez, the No. 3 overall pick. Our friend shook on the deal, though he wasn’t too happy when we made the official offer the following day.

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The Sure Thing: Saratoga Race Course

They met during a veterinary school exam at a horse stable in California many years ago — my aunt unsure of exactly what to do, the trainer working in the stable offering words of advice.

My aunt introduced this trainer to her brother (my uncle) and they’ve spotted her at various tracks for years. The most recent encounter was surely going to be the most profitable.

“I trust her,” my uncle said of this trainer after bumping into her at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. “She told me to stay away from a horse and it came in ninth.”

OK, so she can pick losers. Big deal. I can do that, and prove it every time I go to the track. In fact, I’d estimate I pick loser at a 95 percent clip.

After warning my uncle about one horse, she gave him a tip on another — a surefire winner for a race on Thursday. None of the horses in this race had ever raced before, so there were not prior results to study. But she had told my uncle that this horse was a “monster in the morning,” meaning he had impressed in his morning workouts.

My aunt was less enthusiastic when she heard about this tip, saying, “She’s never given me a winner.” When my uncle hears this he is not discouraged. “She’s due,” he says. As if to validate her status, he also tells me she can “sit in a box whenever she wants because she knows people.”

So she knows people. But does she know horses? We’re about to find out. Or are we? The rain has forced my younger brother, uncle, and I to abandon our trip to the track and instead go to OTB (off-track betting; a place I used to associate with degenerate gambling addicts, but now view in a much better light). Will the rain affect the race, too?

During the second race, I’m not thinking about the rain. Scrolling across the bottom of one of the televisions mounted on the wall are the scratches for the upcoming races. “Fourth race…Scratched: 1A China…6 Moon Ala Mode…Gelding: 7 Gentlemansapproval.” The phrasing makes me think our horse, Gentlemansapproval, is being scratched. It turns out it is much worse.

When I bring the sad news to my brother and uncle — the “retirement horse,” as my uncle calls him, won’t be racing — I am quickly informed that “gelding” means our horse will simply be without something in the upcoming race. Apparently he was a bit too amped for the race, so his trainers — perhaps my aunt’s friend — decided to castrate him. “This is a good thing,” my uncle assures me.

However, we are worried about the rain moving the race off the grass and onto the dirt. Races are often “taken off the turf” if it gets so wet as to be dangerous. We ask one of the OTB employees and he is confident the race will remain on grass. “It’s only light,” he says, referring to the rain. “It’s clearing up anyway.” My uncle thinks this guy knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t.

Not as bad as you might think.

Fifteen minutes to post, the race is moved to the mud. My brother has already bet (our horse is 16:1), but asks the employee if he can be refunded. His bet is relatively small, so a refund shouldn’t be a problem. “But you’d be pretty mad if you took back your bet and that horse won,” he reminds my brother. “That’s true,” my brother says, and decides to keep his bet.

My uncle and I haven’t bet yet. I decide I’m going to follow him. I don’t know the difference between grass and dirt as it pertains to horseracing, but I trust my uncle’s judgment. He seems skeptical — the trainer’s tip was given with the assumption that the race would take place on grass. This horse — and the rest of the field — has never raced competitively on dirt; they might hate it.

I could sense my uncle’s doubt, but perhaps using the same logic as my brother, he pulled the trigger. I followed suit. After all, this horse was a lock. He was a monster: grass, dirt, concrete — it didn’t matter.

Except that it did matter. The gentleman got out of the gate OK, but after the horses started kicking up mud, he fell back farther and farther. My uncle noticed it right away. “He doesn’t like the mud,” he said before any of the horses had even separated from the pack. “He doesn’t like it at all.”

As the first two horses finished, the TV switched to the finish line camera. After all the horses had crossed — coming into view for a second before disappearing off the screen to the right — the camera held steady. Why? Because all the horses had not finished. Our horse still hadn’t crossed. It seemed like a full minute before it finally did, though it was probably about 10 seconds after the winner. One horse even finished after it did. So it was 7/8.

The post-race write-up says our horse “broke a bit awkwardly, was urged along near the back, raced off the rail on the turn and faltered then was not urged in the final furlong.” That makes it sound better than it was. As I noted, his start wasn’t terrible. He wasn’t “urged” down the stretch because he was already out of contention.

When I told my dad about how the horse didn’t like the mud on his face, he made a good point. “If it were in first, it wouldn’t have gotten any mud on his face.”

Well at least Gentlemansapproval wasn’t alone. All the bettors who backed him had plenty of mud on their faces as well.

One man's writing in one place.