Tuesday, March 30th, 2004
And now, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different.
A baseball story about baseball.
With only a short break last fall for the playoffs and World Series, talk about baseball for almost a year has been about everything but the game itself.
Since the end of last season, the big baseball story could be titled, "What exactly are they selling to Barry Bonds at the BALCO take-out window?" or, "The Incredible Shrinking Jason Giambi."
And overarching all of that is the continuing and increasing disparity between the big-money and the small-to-no-money teams, as evidenced by the Yankees' successful drive to acquire Alex Rodriguez.
And I've certainly spent a lot of time whining about all of that.
But not today.
Since Opening Day is this week, it's fitting that we devote a little bit of time to talking about the baseball that happens on the field.
Some of the most interesting questions in baseball teams this year centers on some superstars, stars, and not-quite-stars will manage to come back from injuries.
I've put both of my personalities -- optimist and pessimist -- to work in an effort to offer reasons why four of these players might return to form (or in the case of two of them, reach the form they were expected to show) and reasons they might not.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Junior hasn't been able to match the torrid numbers he put up in Seattle since he realized his dream of going home to Cincinnati.
In the four years before he was traded to the Reds and his first year in Cincinnati, he averaged 50 homeruns and 137 RBI a season. Griffey's last full season was 2000, when he hit 40 homeruns and drove in 118 runs.
But since then, he has spent almost as much time on the disabled list than the field. Last year, he played only 53 games and hit .247 in 166 at-bats.
Why Griffey can come back: His 13 homeruns and 26 RBI last season extrapolate to 43 and 86 RBI over a full 550-at-bat season, which indicates that he is still a dangerous hitter when he can stay in the lineup. He's 34, which isn't terribly old for a position player.
Why Griffey can't come back: When a 25-year-old player is injured and misses most of a season, that is regarded as a fluke. When the same thing happens to a 35-year-old player, you have to worry, because the older body doesn't bounce back as quickly as a younger one. Those of us over 35 know that from experience.
Griffey has been sidelined for much of three seasons. Further, his playing time has decreased -- from 145 games to 111 to 70 to 53 -- each season since he was traded to the Reds.
No matter how old you are, that's a troubling pattern.
The Piazza question might be the biggest one in the National League East Division. A healthy Piazza instantly lifts the Mets into the playoff race, especially with a depleted Braves team and Phillies' slugger Jim Thome likely to be affected by his hand injury.
When Piazza returned to the lineup last year after missing more than 60 games with a severe groin injury -- and don't we all know what that's like, guys -- the Mets ran off a long winning streak. However, they were out of the postseason hunt by that time.
Why Piazza can come back: He recovered from his injury last season and played well once he returned to the lineup. In his last full season, 2002, he hit 33 homeruns and had 98 RBI for three different teams.
From 1995 to 2002, he averaged 36 homeruns and 108 RBI and has a lifetime batting average of .319.
Why Piazza can't come back: Even though he played well down the stretch and has been crushing the ball in spring training this year, groin injuries have a way of recurring -- did someone say Jaromir Jagr? -- especially in the cold of Queens during April.
Also, there's a peculiarity about catchers. Actually, it's not all that peculiar if you think about the fact that they, in effect, are doing the equivalent of about 140 squats every night, get plunked in the fingers with foul tips and once or twice a week get involved with a football-style collision at home plate.
Catchers have a way of being in their prime one day and broken down the next. And while Piazza is only a few months older than Griffey, a 35-year-old catcher is a lot older than a 34-year-old outfielder.
Remember the mention above about a depleted Braves team? Well, Atlanta will be a lot less depleted if Drew turns in the kind of production expected of him when he was drafted first overall in 1997.
The Braves are counting on Drew to offset the losses of catcher Javy Lopez, pitcher Greg Maddux, and rightfielder Gary Sheffield. Of course, Drew won't be asked to do all the heavy lifting by himself -- Chipper and Andruw Jones are still around.
But the Joneses were around last year, too. So Drew, who is moving into Sheffield's spot in right, will have to make up for a big part of a 80-homerun hole in the lineup.
Why Drew can have a breakout year: When he was in St. Louis, Drew was burdened by the weight of great expectations. A change in scenery might be good for him.
It's been looking that way in spring training, with Drew knocking the ball lopsided.
He's only 28-years-old, so it's not as if his body is getting ready to break down.
In his best season, 2001, Drew batted .323 with 27 homeruns and 73 RBI in 375 at-bats. That extrapolates to 40 HRs and 107 RBI in a 550-at-bat season, which means he has the ability to produce a big year.
Also, he'll be playing near his hometown, which might put him in a comfort zone.
Why Drew won't have a breakout year: Even in that big 2001 season, Drew sustained a broken finger and back sprain. Last year's battle to recover from knee surgery seems not so much like a fluke as it does the latest entry on a list that could double as an orthopedic surgeon's schedule book.
And it's not as if all the pressure will be off.
Braves' fans are accustomed to winning. If that doesn't happen this year, and if Drew isn't producing or if he's a frequent flier on the disabled list, he'll make a convenient scapegoat.
Benson might be the most intriguing player on this list. It's not as if the Pirates are counting on the 29-year-old hurler to lead them to the playoffs or even into postseason contention.
En route to a fourth-place finish last year, the Pirates held a fire sale, dealing 100-RBI men Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez, and leadoff hitter extraordinaire Kenny Lofton for little more than a bag of bats and a bucket of balls. Meanwhile, the Cubs, Cardinals, Astros, and Reds have all made major upgrades.
As the division's only non-playoff contender, the Pirates will be looking for Benson to have a big season so they can trade him for players that can serve as the centerpiece of their next rebuilding project.
Which is kind of ironic, because Benson, the first overall pick in the 1996 entry draft, was the centerpiece of the Bucs' last rebuilding effort.
Why Benson can have a breakout year: He has the pedigree as the No. 1 pitcher on the U.S. team that won a surprise gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.
In his best season, 2000, he went 10-12 for a team that lost 100 games and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2-to-1.
Why Benson won't have a breakout year: Since that 2000 season, he has had Tommy John elbow surgery and missed the entire 2001 campaign. After his midseason activation in 2002, he finished with the only winning season of his major-league career.
But then, he was sidelined again in 2003 with arm pain during a season in which the Pirates could have been a playoff contender, had their pitching been a little better.
Benson, once projected to be the staff ace, has had a rough time of it this spring. Last week, Pirates' manager Lloyd McClendon announced Kip Wells would be the opening day starting pitcher.
That spot is usually reserved for an ace, which decidedly isn't Benson, even in a rather nondescript group of pitchers.
Wow, a baseball story about baseball. I guess that proves that the sport isn't dead, which does amount to something completely different.
However -- and in keeping with the Monty Python theme -- why do I feel like the pet shop clerk who tells the angry customer, "This parrot isn't dead. 'E's only stunned. Norwegian Blues stun easily?"
Finally, I wanted to offer a short tribute to veteran pitcher John Burkett, who retired just before spring training.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that Burkett is my wife's stepbrother. Even so, the right-hander was a consistent innings-eater for San Francisco, Florida, Texas, Atlanta, and the Red Sox in a major-league career that spanned 13 seasons.
A 22-game winner and two-time all-star, Burkett also is a decent guy, both by my estimation and by the public statements of his teammates.
He will now be coaching his kids' youth sports teams and he might take an occasional fling on the professional bowlers' tour, a profession he might have pursued had that whole baseball thing not worked out so well.