Houston Astros – by Daniel R. Epstein
KC Royals – by Nathan Valentine
Miami Marlins – by Jon Jacoby
2019 League Rankings
Houston Astros: Are We…Sure?
A song for the 2020 Astros: “I Fought the Law,” Bobby Fuller Four
Let’s begin with two heinous deeds: the first too human to be real, the second too inhuman to be fiction. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker for her money. He expects to free himself from obligation, but instead becomes consumed with anguish, guilt, and paranoia. His life continues to spiral out of control until he finally confesses his crime.
In November, 2011, former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation. Amidst the fallout, the football program was penalized 40 scholarships and banned from postseason play for four years (the ban was later commuted to two years). The school embarked on a “Restore the Roar” campaign to immediately fast forward to redemption. They successfully recruited top players on the premise of rebuilding a once great program, never suffered a losing season, and became nationally ranked again as soon as 2016. They finished 2019 ranked #10 in the final polls.
The Houston Astros cheated at baseball. By no means is this scandal anywhere near as despicable as the actions of Raskolnikov and Sandusky, but it is a crime against the sport all the same. The violations themselves are for the commissioner to punish, just as the ones in Crime and Punishment and at Penn State are police matters. At this point, the Astros can only control the fallout.
Rather than sincerely confess their sins and take some responsibility for the way in which they fundamentally altered the history of the game, the Astros have largely chosen the Penn State approach. “I don’t think I should be held responsible,” said owner Jim Crane at his apology press conference.
When other players and executives around MLB expressed their disgust, the Astros doubled down. “We won the games fair and square,” offered Carlos Correa. “We earned that (2017) championship.”
José Altuve appears to have already put the scandal in the rear view mirror. “Believe me, at the end of the year, everything will be fine. We’re going to be in the World Series again.”
Alex Bregman took a different tack, using third person to disassociate himself from the team for which he played 155 games. “The commissioner came out with a report, MLB did their report and the Astros did what they did.”
While other 2017 Astros have shown some greater degree of sincerity (especially the ones who’ve moved on to other teams), most of the biggest names appear false to the point of defiance. How dare we still talk about this! Why isn’t it behind us yet? More than likely, the team already has a bulletin board full of headlines and quotes from around the league for “motivation.” They’re already selling the plucky “us against the world” underdog narrative, and they’re incensed that we haven’t bought it.
What else could they do? This is the dystopian world we inhabit. Why show remorse or responsibility when you can recast yourselves as the lovable antihero? When the person who shouts the loudest overrules morality and logic, what place is there for scruples? We’ve been force-fed so many Disney movie endings and modern fairy tales that we can’t help but swoon over a redemption arc. Does it matter if they skip the step where they actually redeem themselves?
This is a 2020 Astros preview, so here’s what’s going to happen this season: Every time Bregman goes 1-12, every time Altuve strikes out, every time Correa fails to deliver a runner from scoring position, there will be doubt. People will whisper of cheating whenever they fail, and baseball is rife with failure. Would he have hit the ball if he knew what pitch was coming?
Even when they win–and they will win often, possibly even another “piece of metal,”–the fans in the stands, watching on TV, and calling into talk radio will question their legitimacy. Are we SURE they stopped cheating?
No matter what they accomplish on the field this season, they’ll never rid themselves entirely of the haunt of suspicion. Raskolnikov was driven to the brink of madness. What will become of the Astros?
How do the Astros define success in 2020?
The Astros have 311 wins since 2017, and they’re heavy favorites once again. Success is a World Series championship, and nothing less. ESPN will produce a 30 for 30 about how they “banded together when the whole world was against them and overcome adversity.”
Which Astro will get a mention on “Effectively Wild” this season?
The real magic of the Astros isn’t a banging trash can or buzzer on their shoulders; it’s how they pull aces out of thin air, turning disappointing (Gerrit Cole), unheralded (Charlie Morton), or overlooked (Dallas Keuchel) arms into studs. All three of those aces have high-tailed out of town, leaving a few open spots in the rotation. As surely as you can say “abracadabra,” someone new will emerge with a blazing fastball and wipeout secondaries.
They’ve got an endless chain of hankies to pull out of their sleeve, but why not a recycled trick? Josh James Apparated onto the stage with a 102 mph fastball two years ago, forcing his way onto the postseason roster. While he was banished to the pen last season (get it? [ed. note: yes]), he still sawed plenty of volunteers in half, fanning 37.6% of participants. If he can limit free passes, the Astros would love to pull his card out of the deck every fifth day.
What ice cream flavor are the Astros?
Bubblegum–much like electronic sign stealing, it seems like a good idea when you order, but it quickly leaves a bad taste in your mouth and becomes hard to swallow.
What food item do you HAVE to try at Minute Maid Park?
If they don’t serve chicken fingers served in a trash can-shaped bucket, they’re missing a gigantic marketing opportunity. In the meantime, go for the Nolan Ryan Prime Rib Steak Sandwich.
Win total prediction?
98-64. It’s a half step back after losing Gerrit Cole, and the AL West should be a better overall division (except the Mariners obviously), but it’s still plenty of wins to get them comfortably to the top of the division.
Kansas City Royals: We Are the Royals and They Are Us (Sometimes Good, Often Bad)
By Nathan Valentine
A song for the 2020 Royals: Halsey – Graveyard (My kids love this song and I think it’s appropriate for those who still dare to follow the 2020 Royals)
I had a very Royals childhood. I remember George Brett sliding into dugouts to catch foul balls. Hot days in the GA section getting hosed down by the grounds crew from the bullpen. Bo Jackson knocking homers far into the fountains or scaling the fence for heroic catches. Bret Saberhagen handing off to the Quiz. But there was darkness lurking beneath. The team was not getting better, the ownership was unstable, and that quaint pastoral setting beyond the outfield was actually a busy interstate, with a tendency to send random gunshots toward the stadium. Dark times were ahead, and dark they were. The hope of the Sweeney-Appier years was brief and more trouble ahead. Remember Neifi Perez, franchise savior? And now more gunplay, but with go-go boots.
Then it seemed things were turning better, and then they did, and then two consecutive pennants and finally a World Series championship in 2015. But in the land of the Royals the rot always creeps in. Enter Dayton Moore embarking on a bizarre anti-porn crusade (fitting with the looming FCA headquarters in LF) while simultaneously floating the idea that maybe raping children isn’t exactly a disqualifier to be part of the Royals organization. Also the team got terrible again, seemingly a result of unrealistic expectations of continued contention. Valuable assets were left until the end of their contracts or traded too late for minimal assets (see: Mike Moustakas). Always Royal!
The team will not be good this year. The team will be lucky to be merely bad this year. So where is a fan to find solace in these dark times? Maybe a nice sunny day at the ballpark with a scorecard and some Gates BBQ and just enough Boulevard beer to forget your troubles and sink into the sunlight, the heat, the grass and the bright white unis? In a few special moments, the bat cracks and the glove snaps and the beer is just right and what could be better than this? And who knows, on any given day a bad team can look good — maybe this will be one of those days. Or maybe it won’t.
So you wake the next morning with a headache, groggy and bloated and wondering if it was really a good call to drive home from the ballpark (but there was no other way to get home), and you wonder why you even bother or, for that matter, why you bother going to work every morning, and why your kids seem so distant lately and why you have so many friends who seem so far away and it’s been so long they might not even be actual friends anymore. But the good news is the Royals play again tonight and maybe it will be better this time. Or maybe it won’t. We are the Royals and they are us. Sometimes good, often bad, the glory comes and the glory goes, but we have a nagging feeling we could do a lot better if we wanted to and we could really use some help. Play ball and pass the Kevlar.
How do the 2020 Royals define success?
New manager Mike Matheny is a little more mellow than his reputation and a good mentor for younger players. Whit Merrifield stays good enough to be traded for a real return. Salvador Perez returns to all star form and can be traded for a haul. Junis and Keller look pretty good. Mondesi and Nicky Lopez have strong seasons. Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer and Bobby Witt have good seasons in the minors. Jorge Soler hits a lot of dingers. Sweep the Astros at home and have witty signs about the banging scheme. Alex Gordon has a good enough season to call it a fond farewell but not so good he decides to not retire. Above all, the front office signs on for a full rebuild without ambivalence or half measures. If even half these things happen, the season is a resounding success for the reality-minded.
Which Royals player gets mentioned on “Effectively Wild” this season?
Ryan McBroom: a lefty-throwing, righty-batting, hulking mass of a man who struggled a bit in the bigs last year but has had periods of absolute mashing in the minor leagues. He could be this year’s Eric Thames (circa 2018), an unorthodox/unwanted player starting the season on a tear, leading in multiple statistical categories. He also has great nickname/headline potential. Choose your favorite variation of “How Sweep it Is” or my favorite, “The McBroom of the System.”
What flavor of ice cream are the Royals?
Moose tracks, an explanatory haiku:
Moose would mash taters
The fans in blue would rejoice.
Nevermore. Moose Tracks.
What’s one food item you MUST try at Kaufman Stadium?
Might as well do Gates BBQ. It’s a shadow of actual Gates, which is itself a shadow of the whole KC BBQ scene, but it’s the ballpark so it’ll have to do. And the “How can I help you???” screaming from the kitchen is spot on.
Win total prediction?
69. Who says things can’t be nice? Nice.
Miami Marlins: What If?
by Jon Jacoby
A song for your 2020 Miami Marlins: Defend the Dade – DJ Kahled, Pitbull and Casely. (I have a DJ Kahled Marlins bobblehead.)
The “Effectively Wild” Facebook group had a poll for members’ favorite teams. Guess what: the Marlins finished dead last. They got shut out. Not a single vote. This is a team that has won two World Series titles (but have never won their division) and play in a gem of a stadium. The most famous Marlin is Derek Jeter, who runs the team like he used to field ground balls. (ed. note: Not well)
I thought about writing this essay as a Marlins Fanfic. A giant “What If?”
What if after the 2015 season they didn’t trade Trevor Williams for the rights to a pitching coach they fired two years later? What if they didn’t trade Chris Paddack, only a year after selecting him in the draft, for Fernando Rodney in June 2016? What if, after the Marlins traded Luis Castillo to the Padres as part of a package to get Andrew Cashner, and the Padres traded Castillo BACK to the Marlins three days later, the Marlins decided NOT to trade him again in January for Dan Straily? (Seriously, did Castillo run over Dave Samson’s dog or something?)
The saddest “What If” for the Marlins is of course also from 2016, “What if Jose Fernandez never got on that boat?” I could try and do a whole essay about Fernandez and what he meant to the team, the city and the fans, but it would get very dusty in the room. The most obvious one is: What if, when Jeter and friends bought the team, they were able to keep together the outfield of Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, and Marcell Ozuna? I wonder if Fernandez was around, would Jeter have sold off the core hitters. I could imagine Fernandez on the mound, the big three in the outfield and hitting bombs. People in the Clevelander Club in Centerfield getting to the park early to watch batting practices and fight for balls while trying not to spill their mojitos. A charismatic, winning Marlins team would have the city buzzing from the clubs of South Beach to the cafes of Little Havana. Fernandez, Stanton, and Yelich would be like baseball’s LeBron, Wade and Bosh. Maybe the team would have even spent money on free-agents, like perhaps Manny Machado who had “Mr. Miami” on his Players’ Weekend jersey.
However, that is not the reality we live in. The Marlins have only finished in the top 25 of attendance once in this millennium and that was their first year in Marlins Park. I was at two games last season and did not see a single fan wearing the jersey or shirsey of a current player. But all is not lost. The players they received in the various rebuilding trades are getting ready to make a difference. Sandy Alcantara (part of the Ozuna trade) looked good last season. He reminds me of Castillo two seasons ago. Isan Diaz (part of the Yelich trade) hit a memorable home run last season and reminds me of Dan Uggla. After looking lost against major league pitching the past two seasons, Lewis Brinson (also acquired via the Yelich trade) has a new approach at the plate and is off to a hot start this spring. Other than Brinson, there is Monte Harrison (Yelich trade) who looks major league ready. To top it off, the pitching staff has a ton of young arms, with Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Caleb Smith in the majors and Sixto Sanchez, Edward Cabrera, and Braxton Garrett waiting in the wings.
How do the Marlins define success in 2020?
The Marlins win total has dropped in each of the past 3 years. Success is definitely relative for the Marlins. For 2020: Lose fewer than 100 games? That would be a 6-win improvement from last year. PECOTA predicts losing fewer than 90 in sight. Finishing “not last” in the NL East would be a huge accomplishment. Most important: for the Marlins’ season to be seen as a success, they need continued player development. Next year, 2021: they should be fighting to reach .500 maybe tease a wild card run. How about 2022: Playoffs? First division title in team history? Marlins Park becomes the place to see and be seen in October.
Who is one player from the Marlins who will be a topic on “Effectively Wild” this season?
1. His name is JAZZ freaking CHISHOLM.
2. He was part of a prospect “Challenge Trade” — the Marlins traded Zac Gallen straight-up for Jazz Chisholm (and Gallen previously came to Miami as part of the Ozuna trade).
3. Last year in AA, Chisholm walked in over 11% of his plate appearances. He had 20 homers and was 16-for-20 in steals. Eric Longhagen ranks Chisholm as the 33rd best prospect in baseball.
While Eric puts Chisholm’s ETA at 2021, there are three contributing factors that could have him up earlier: the Marlins seem set on playing Jonathan Villar everywhere but shortstop; Miguel Rojas is currently the Marlins’ starting shortstop; and the more success Zac Gallen has in Arizona, the more pressure on the Marlins to show that the trade was worth it for them.
The Marlins are ___ flavored ice cream?
Key Lime Pie: tart makes you pucker, but the creaminess and the sweet pieces of graham cracker foretells good times ahead.
What is one food item from Marlins Park that you MUST try?
The Cuban sandwich. Seriously–it has two kinds of pork, pickles, garlic mayo and mustard. It comes with a generous helping of plantain chips on the side (or at least it used to) and wash it down with a Estrella Jalisco tallboy. I’m a sucker for a good cuban sandwich or a roast pork with chicharrones. Marlins Park for a season or two had bacon-wrapped plantains, but I didn’t see them there last year. Also I’m yet to try any of the food from the Jose Andres stands.
Win total prediction: 69 (ed. note: nice)
2020 Win Projection Roundup
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