March 2011

My predictions for the 2011 season …

I was asked recently by the higher-ups at my company to submit my predictions for the 2011 season in several different categories, which was tallied up among several others to produce this. With Opening Day here, I thought I’d share my specific picks with a short explanation.

Here it is …

AL East: Red Sox (too good — everywhere)

AL Central: White Sox (great offense; but Jake Peavy needs to be good)

AL West: Athletics (great pitching and defense)

AL Wild Card: Tigers (solid at every aspect)

AL champion: Red Sox (again, too good)

NL East: Phillies (rotation enough to make up for injuries)

NL Central: Brewers (solid everywhere, but can’t afford injury)

NL West: Rockies (most well-rounded club in the division)

NL Wild Card: Braves (probably most well-rounded team in MLB)

NL champion: Braves (if young guys come through — which they should — they’ll prevail)

World Series champion: Red Sox (Braves have no lefty starters, Sox have great lefty hitters — Boston has the edge)

AL surprise team: Athletics (young, dynamic pitching staff and great defense on low payroll)

NL surprise team: Marlins (their rotation and offense can compete with anybody’s)

AL surprise player: A.J. Burnett (looked great this spring, and health wasn’t a factor in rough 2010 season)

NL surprise player: Juan Miranda (forgotten in Yankees system, but has good power and showed good signs this spring)

AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera (he’s motivated and is the best hitter in the AL; he’ll prove it)

NL MVP: Albert Pujols (easy — best player in baseball is in a walk year)

AL Cy Young: Jon Lester (this is the year he takes it to the next level — especially with that defense and offense behind him)

NL CY Young: Cliff Lee (happy and motivated)

AL Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson (can’t wait to see him in a full season)

NL Rookie of the Year: Freddie Freeman (everybody absolutely raves about this kid)

AL Manager of the Year: Ozzie Guillen (has a great team, peace with Ken Williams and contract stability)

NL Manager of the Year: Charlie Manuel (yes, he has a great team, but he’ll get them through injury woes)

Breakout Player of the Year: Mike Stanton (almost won Rookie of the Year in 100 games last season; now the world will see how special he truly is)

Executive of the Year: Billy Beane (“Money Ball” at its finest playing out right now)

– Alden

* Here’s my Opening Day preview and the nine storylines I have my eye on this season.

** Other stuff to get you primed for the start of the season: A look at first-year managers in the Grapefruit League; previews for the AL East and NL East; and a glimpse at five players we can’t wait to see.

Maddon, Manny a match made in Rays heaven

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — It turns out there may be a perfect match for the volatile Manny Ramirez.

It’s Joe Maddon.

Yes, I guess there’s a reason why the volatile slugger seems as motivated as ever this spring — and it has more to do with his humbling contract, his age and his declining skill sets. Maddon (pictured left with his new DH by The Associated Press) just seems like the kind of guy Manny would love playing for.

It’s just too bad he didn’t discover that until age 38.

I had a chance to chat with Maddon on Thursday and asked him about the dynamic of his relationship with Ramirez — a supremely talented hitter who can sometimes be, let’s say, aloof. That day, Maddon decided to hold Ramirez back in Port Charlotte, Fla., rather than have him make the long trip to the Astros’ Spring Training complex, even though Manny wanted to.

Maddon talked about how he has received nothing but positive vibes from Manny thus far (granted, this is still what you would call “The Honeymoon Period”), how he simply hates dress codes, how he doesn’t judge players until he gets to know them first and how he himself is very much a free spirit.

Here’s how that conversation went …

Q: With Manny, where do you draw the line between giving him the benefit of the doubt and stepping in and taking charge?

A: I really have a different approach to things. I think that if you communicate daily or constantly, hopefully you don’t need to step in or bring somebody to the principal’s office. And furthermore, you’re talking about a Hall of Fame player. He’s pretty good. I have a lot of respect for that. He’s going to be afforded different concessions or considerations than a first- or second-year guy is. Now at the end of the day, he’s going to fit in regarding how we play the game. But when it comes to personal situations and listening to what he has to say, quite frankly, I’m going to listen to him more.

Q: At one point in spring, you asked him not to show up to camp and he still showed up …

A: I’m OK with that stuff. … I don’t like the idea of having them conform to my whims and prejudices and judgmental attitudes on anything. I’d much rather try to understand each guy and try to figure out what works for them. But that’s individually. There is team concept, which is unwavering. But individually, I really want us to be a group of individuals that win as a team. That’s the best way to describe it. And I think when you have that, you get the best out of the players. You get a more relaxed player, more confident player. One that’s really going to show you who he is, without any contrive. … I hate when somebody asks, ‘What should I wear?’ I absolutely hate that phrase — ‘What should I wear?’ Look, whatever you want to wear is fine. … I don’t understand why collared shirts are so viable or vital and important in our society. A collar-less shirt also can look really good as far as I’m concerned. So whoever made these rules at some particular time, they really are archaic.

Q: Are you saying a guy can get on the team plane wearing anything?

A: I mean, you don’t want them walking in with a jock strap or some underwear or something really beachy. No, I don’t want that, I don’t think. But I’m only going to say that because it might offend somebody else. It wouldn’t offend me. … I believe if you leave everybody to their own devices, they’ll show up in their own professional way and they’re going to be fine. But I think when you’re always dictating somebody on how to act, then you’re going to get somebody who doesn’t think for themselves, and that may impact how they think on the field, too. … We get confused on what’s really important and what’s not sometimes.

Q: When you found out the Rays were signing Manny, did you seek out advice from anyone on how to deal with him?

A: I wanted advice from Manny. I wanted to be able to speak with him. That’s all Andrew [Friedman, the Rays' general manager] and I talked about. I didn’t really want to talk to anybody except him. We had dinner before Spring Training began so we can talk openly about what he thought, what his wishes and needs are, and I needed to talk to him openly about the same thing. And my needs basically are a couple things that we do on the field. I just mean a couple. I don’t mean a lot. I’m really anti-rules and regulations. I’m anti-legislation. … So at the end of the day, I’d rather a guy be professional, be themselves, stay within the team concepts, and I really prefer not having a lot of rules and regulations. Now if something were to pop up, then you go talk to the guy one-on-one personally about the situation, and you try to work it out. … We just talked. It was great. Very engaging, very gregarious young man. I enjoyed it.

No wonder Maddon gets so much bang for his buck on those low-payroll Rays teams.

– Alden

** Here’s a recent column on Jose Bautista — his uphill climb, his new standing as the face of the Blue Jays and his uncelebrated 50-homer season.

Big shoes to fill in Atlanta

Fredi.jpg
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Teams normally seek a new direction when they change managers. Not the Braves. When looking for the Bobby Cox successor, they sought consistency — somebody who would run a team, run a clubhouse, in much of the same way Bobby did. 
That’s why the choice to bring in Fredi Gonzalez was such an easy (and quick) one. 
Cox has been such an important and beloved figure in Atlanta that it was critical for the Braves to find somebody similar. And by all accounts, Fredi (pictured above by The Associated Press) hasn’t been much of a break from Bobby — because a lot of how he manages stems from his tutelage under Cox, not because he’s being anybody but himself. 
“Same old Fredi that I’ve seen him,” new Braves second baseman Dan Uggla told me on Sunday morning. Uggla, of course, also played for Gonzalez when the two were on the Marlins together. 
“Fredi’s Fredi. He’s not going to change who he is just because he’s in a different place. I think that’s a good thing, though.” 
I wrote recently about how the Marlins’ dismissal of Gonzalez in June seemed to be a win-win for both sides — the Marlins (now with Edwin Rodriguez) and Fredi himself. This clubhouse seems to play better to who Gonzalez is as a manager. Covering him with the Marlins, it didn’t seem like his strengths lied in getting on guys and being very demanding — they were in instilling confidence in players and getting the best out of them in that way. 
Problem is, with the Marlins, somebody needed to get on the guys at times. It wasn’t going to be Fredi, and it wasn’t going to be Josh Johnson or Hanley Ramirez; that’s just not who they are. And if it’s not the manager or the star players, it’s hard for anybody else to do it. In Atlanta, Tim Hudson and Chipper Jones are those guys. And by all accounts, they both have Fredi’s back. 
That’s huge for any first-year manager, especially one taking over a championship-contending team, and especially one filling such big shoes. 
One thing Fredi has said he wants to do is keep Bobby — now in an advisory role — as involved with the club as possible. 
“I want to try to get him in uniform before Spring Training, but I don’t know if that’s going to work,” Gonzalez said from Roger Dean Stadium on Monday. “He comes around as much as he wants to, and you want him to be around.”
As for what’s different between Marlins Fredi and Braves Fredi? 
“I think the experience,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you this is the one thing, but I think you’re always prepared after your first job — anywhere, I think — to handle things better. Because nothing prepares you to manage a club until you manage.” 
– Alden Gonzalez 

** What I wrote this week: Neftali Feliz should start for the Rangers; Brett Gardner a fit atop Yankees lineup; Mets well-versed in putting distractions in the back burner; Jason Bay and Justin Morneau fighting concussions together; stars bouncing back from 2010 injuries. 
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