C70 At The Bat

It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Boston Red Sox
71-91, fifth in the AL East

Last.  First.  Last.  You’d forgive Red Sox Nation (assuming you hold any sympathies for them at all) if they’ve grabbed the oxygen masks and are about ready for the turbulence to subside.  It’s been a crazy half-decade for the folks from Boston, but there’s no reason to think the ride won’t swing upward yet again.  No matter how active the offseason, you can never count out one of the big markets, especially when they are run by a competent group of folks.  And if we’ve learned anything from the San Francisco Giants, it’s that baseball loves its cycles.

Boston is always one team that I can get a good response from with their bloggers and this year is no different.  We’ve got four different folks taking a crack at the questions today, starting with Michael from The Pesky Pole.  Michael’s on Twitter @peskypole6, if you want to look him up.  Going second in the order is Ruben, who writes at the eponymous Ruben’s Baseball and is on Twitter @BaseballRuben.  (Ruben’s also been great about RTing the other Pepper entries, which I appreciate!)  In the three-hole is John Quinn, who writes The Mighty Quinn Media Machine and is on Twitter @TheMightyQuinn.  Finally, my good friend Christine from Boston Red Thoughts rounds out the group.  She’s a great chapter president in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and Tweets @BostonRedThots.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

PP: I think the Red Sox offseason was a success and a case can be made that they had the best offseason of any team in the majors. Their major needs were offensive and they addressed that, especially in the outfield. Hanley Ramirez is that right handed power bat that they need, Rusney Castillo has looked impressive and all indications point to him being a regular All Star caliber type of player. Third base was also an issue last year and the Red Sox filled that hole with Pablo Sandoval. I think Pablo is a very good player who landed a superstar contract. My fear is that he will try to live up to that contract instead of just playing his game. Carl Crawford tried to become a home run hitter in Boston because he felt his contract required that. That is always the concern when a player leaves his original organization for the first time and signs a contract that is bigger than what his numbers justify.

The Sox added depth to their pitching staff and this actually started last season during their fire sale. However, the Red Sox will go into the season without a true ace. This is uncharted waters for this organization.This is the first season since 1997 that the Red Sox don’t have that #1 guy in the rotation. The Red Sox did add depth in their rotation. Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson are all quality pieces. I think this bodes well for a successful regular season. I do think you need that ace for the postseason though. It will be interesting to see if the Sox go out and get one before the trading deadline if they appear to be postseason bound.

RB: Last year the team tried breaking in several young players, and too many of them predictably struggled, and the team sputtered offensively. After this offseason, that should not be a problem with Pablo Sandoval’s and Hanley Ramirez’ bats added to the middle of our lineup. The pitching rotation was also overhauled, the only thing that is missing is a bona fide ace. However with the offensive firepower, they will have a chance to win most games, with league average starting pitching. Would it have been better if they had signed Lester or traded for Hamels? Sure. Did they need to? No. They did enough to be able to contend this season, and be set up for future seasons.

MQM: Overall I was happy with what the Red Sox did following their 91-loss season of 2014. They addressed some key issues, especially involving their rotation. As I write this, they have not traded for a number one starter, or signed one as a free agent. But they added some solid starters, innings-eaters such as Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley. I think they feel this will be a make-it-or-break-it season for Clay Buchholz, to step as a top of the rotation starter. This will be his final year in Boston if he’s not. And I’m glad they avoided James Shields, who I always considered an overrated pitcher. (“Big Game James?” Yeah, right.) The Sox also bolstered the bullpen, bringing in Robbie Ross, Alexi Ogando and Anthony Varvaro. No “sexy” names by any means, but Ogando can be something special if he stays healthy.

The Sox added two big bats they needed to add with Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. I like the signing of Panda more, as he’s a proven winner, great teammate and a good clubhouse presence. But he needs to get off to a good start, otherwise his weight will become a focus of discontent for sure. I’ve never been a big fan of Ramirez, and have no idea if he can handle left field. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. They have a crowded outfield right now, but by the end of spring, that is sure to change. We’ll see if Shane Victorino and Allen Craig are healthy.

BRT: Did they do what they needed to do? As far as the offense, I think the Sox did well getting Pablo Sandoval and getting back Hanley Ramirez back into the fold. Now, they just have to hope the robust Panda doesn’t become a thing, and that Hanley can stay healthy. As far as pitching? Ugh. No. They messed up the Jon Lester deal from the moment they thought they could lowball him last year. THEN then traded him. I really think they wanted the appearance of trying to get him back, but they were totally fine with him not returning, something I am less than happy about. Because a rotation anchored by Clay Buchholz makes me more than a little sick to my stomach. I like Justin Masterson, a lot, but I do not like his 7-9 record, with a 5.88 ERA for the 2014 Campaign. And Wade Miley with his 8-12 records with a 4.34 ERA? Actually Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello are the only potential member of the starting five that doesn’t make me aggravated. And look! They both had winning records in 2014! (6-4 4.20/15-13 3.43) But are they enough? I’m not sold…

I think I am going to call this the “We’ll see” season…

C70: What do you expect out of Joe Kelly and Allen Craig this season?

PP: Joe Kelly is slated as the #5 guy in the rotation and I think he is going to excel there. I don’t think many teams have a guy with Kelly’s abilities at the bottom of their rotation. The issue will be his durability. He has yet to throw more than 124 innings in a season.

Allen Craig is a man without a spot right now. The outfield is loaded. Hanley Ramirez is slated for LF. Rusney Castillo is slated for CF and then you will have a battle in RF between a very motivated veteran in a contract year in Shane Victorino and the future in Mookie Betts. Unless there are a ton of injuries I don’t see Craig getting any significant time in the outfield. Then there is first base, Mike Napoli is the starter and I think Napoli is due for a big year. He has battled sleep apnea for year and it was so bad last year that he would have to be taken out of games because he was so fatigued. He had major surgery in the offseason to correct the structure of his face which will allow him to get quality sleep. All reports are that the surgery is a success and he feels like a new man. Craig appears to be on the outside looking in.

RB: Unlike Mr. Kelly’s own prediction, I don’t think he’ll quite win the Cy Young Award this year! I do admire his confidence and attitude however. And I think he’ll be a solid member of the rotation. Most depth charts have him as the #4 or 5 guy in the rotation, but I expect he’ll be no worse than the de facto #3 by the end of the season. I’m convinced he’s the guy Ben Cherington wanted when he sent John Lackey to St. Louis last season.

As far as Allen Craig, I think he was someone whose salary the Red Sox had to take on to receive Joe Kelly. He was a superb player, but suffered a foot injury in September 2013, and he’s never been the same since. There is some hope that he can return to his pre-injury numbers, but I think it’s foolish to count on that. I think he will bounce back somewhat from the .128 he had for the Red Sox after they acquired him, but he is no longer a star. And on a team with the outfield depth which Boston now has, there is no room for him as a starter. I expect he’ll have some pinch hitting appearances, and may play some first base to give Napoli a rest, but his main role on the team is as injury insurance. Anything he provides offensively will be a bonus.

MQM: Well, I have to like Joe Kelly’s confidence, as he himself has already predicted he’ll win the AL Cy Young Award for 2015. I honestly don’t know if he’s a top of the rotation pitcher, but he’s young and will be given every opportunity to prove himself. Allen Craig had a terrible last two months of 2014, as he was injured, so expectations of him for 2015 are rather low. I think the Sox will showcase him in Spring Training to show other teams he’s healthy and can play regularly. I would bet he will be traded before the season begins to fill another need, unless someone goes down in the spring.

BRT: I like Joe Kelly. He has a good vibe about him, I think he is a great teammate, and he is only 26. But I am concerned about his high walk count, and the fact he has never pitched more than 124 innings in his career. So we’ll see.

I don’t know what to make of Allen Craig, although I do love that his nickname is The Wrench. He’s never played a full season, and has only hot 500 AB’s once (in 2013) which was his best season with a .315 BA. And then his BA dropped a 100 points in 2014, as he was dealing with that foot/ankle injury. Supposedly it will no longer be an issue. Again, we’ll see…

C70: Has it been tough following the roller-coaster of this team over the past few years?

PP: A World Series title sandwiched between two last place teams has definitely been different. Even though the 2012 and 2014 teams finished in last place and had horrible seasons they had very different vibes about them. It was embarrassing and depressing being a Red Sox fan in 2012. The Sox just came off one of the worst collapses in baseball history, Theo Epstein bolted for the Cubs, Francona was “fired” and then personal information about him was leaked by the organization, Bobby Valentine was the manager. The confidence in the organization was real low. The baseball people weren’t running the team anymore. It was a clown show. 2012 played out just like everyone feared. It was awful to watch. The 2014 team just had a bad year. Everything that went right in 2013, went wrong in 2014. They couldn’t stay healthy, guys who had great years in 2013, struggled in 2014. The Sox went with a youth movement and it didn’t work out. The offense was anemic and clearly they weren’t a great team. Despite that, you still had the glow of the 2013 team and you felt the future was bright. It is not a model that teams are going to sign up to follow, but the two last place finishes have enabled the Red Sox to build up depth in their organization. Eduardo Rodriguez is a left handed pitcher in their organization, he is rated as the 3rd best in the organization and 29th best in all of baseball. He is projected as a top of the rotation type of guy in the very near future. The Red Sox acquired him last year from the Orioles for Andrew Miller. The Red Sox don’t make that trade if they are having a great season. That was just one move of many. Is it tough? Going through it is tough, but the Red Sox are in better shape now because of those two last place teams.

RB: The way 2011 finished was heartbreaking and a shock. 2012 was not a very likable team starting with the manager, but after the Punto trade and Bobby V’s dismissal at the end of the season, there was at least optimism that it would be fun to follow the team in 2013. Of course, winning the World Series that year was that much sweeter because of the pain of the previous two seasons. In spite of finishing last again in 2014, the team was a lot of fun to watch. Seeing the prospects develop and the team setting up for the future was very enjoyable, and I’m now optimistic that the Sox have a solid core for the next several seasons. And regardless of whether they finish last again, or win it all, it will be fun to continue to follow them.

MQM: Sure has. I’ve been a fan of the Sox since 1977 and haven’t seen anything like the last few seasons. Two last-place finishes sandwiched in-between a World Series championship. 2014 was tougher than 2012 in some ways, as the 10-game losing in May basically killed the season and the Red Sox never recovered, where as in 2012 they were still in the playoff hunt until early August. But on the other hand, there was a championship flag flying over the Fens last year, and in 2012, Bobby Valentine was sitting in the manager’s office all year. So both years had good and bad.

BRT: Yes, and not for the reasons you might think. I am not like some fans who if their team doesn’t make it to the World Series it’s a failed season. I want them to be a team where they play the game right, and it is fun to watch. Many of us said at the beginning of 2013 that if the Sox could be a LIKABLE team again, we could live with 80 wins. And they blew that up and won the World Series. But this year I just could not watch, it was painful, not only because they lost so much, but management made questionable moves (keeping Clay Buchholz, getting rid of Andrew Miller to name two), and was just soul sucking.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

PP: The obvious pick is Mookie Betts just like Xander Bogaerts was last year. That didn’t work out too well. I am going to go away from the obvious and pick Rick Porcello. It will be interesting to see if he gets the Opening Day start. He is the de facto ace and I think that he may just embrace that role and finally find the consistency he has been lacking so far in his young career. The talent is definitely there.

RB: There are huge expectations for future “first ballot Hall of Famer” Mookie Betts and Red Sox Nation is justifiably excited about seeing what he can do over a full season. And I am too, but he’s only had about 200 major league plate appearances at the age of 21, so there’s a good chance he may hit a slump and not quite be the superstar everyone is expecting just yet. After being similarly hyped last season, Xander Bogaerts struggled most of the year, until September when he finished very strong. I expect him to continue to make strides and have a breakout season this year.

MQM: No question the one player that will be expected to greatly improve will be Xander Bogaerts. It was a real struggle for him at times in 2014, with moving positions and the expectations many had for him in 2014. But now he is at shortstop to stay. Improvement both at the position and at the plate are expected. If he struggles again, I’m sure the calls to move Hanley Ramirez back to shortstop will begin.

BRT: This is where I used to predict a monster season for Ryan Kalish. But alas, he is no longer with the Sox, having been non-tendered before last season. I’d like to see Dustin Pedroia, Shane Victorino, and Mike Napoli be the leaders (on the field and off) they were in 2013. And I am also interested to see how the Yoan Moncada signing shakes out. So there are a lot of puzzle pieces still to fit, so again, we’ll see…

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

PP: I think the Red Sox win 90 games and win the AL East. The AL East is not bad but it isn’t great either.. There are no bad teams but there are also no great teams. I think the Red Sox will be good and are built for the regular season. They have question marks like all teams but I think they have less questions than the rest of the teams in the AL East.

RB: 88 Wins. Enough for first place in the suddenly mediocre AL East. But don’t expect them to go far in the playoffs.

MQM: I think the Red Sox can once again win the AL East, as it is not a strong division heading into 2015. (“Worst to first to worst to first?”) It looks like a three-team race, with Baltimore and Toronto. The Orioles look to me to have slipped back a bit this winter, and Toronto made some very interesting moves. New York and Tampa Bay will be fighting it out to see who stays out of the cellar. I see the Sox winning 90 games and taking the division.

BRT: I think they will bounce back. Perhaps not to a World Series finish, but I think at least to the dance. They will win the AL East with 90 wins.

C70: What do you like best about being a Red Sox fan?

PP: The importance of the Red Sox is what I like most about being a Red Sox fan. Every game is an event, every transaction is analyzed to death. It is like 162 straight Saturday afternoons in the world of SEC Football.

RB: Not living in the New England area, I often run into someone wearing a red “B” on their hat and that gives us an instant connection, and an excuse to start talking with a stranger. I suspect running into someone in Boston wearing Red Sox gear and saying “Hey, what a coincidence, I’m a Red Sox fan too!” would seem a little strange or even creepy. But 2500 miles away from Fenway, it’s a great icebreaker. I’ve made many lasting friendships with people who I met solely because they too were fans living far away from their team.

MQM: I live in New York City, so whenever I run into Sox fans down here, it’s always cool to get acknowledgment from fellow fans “behind enemy lines.” And of course, it’s a source of pride to say that my team was the first team to win three titles in this century, and are one of only two so far to have done it. And the fact that the other isn’t the New York Yankees.

BRT: [Christine told me she skipped this one because there were too many things and not enough time!–C70]

Thanks and appreciation goes out to all of these fine bloggers.  And let me tell you, there’s no doubt you are going to enjoy Joe Kelly.  (Just don’t try to have a standoff with him.  Man’s a pro.)

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It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Baltimore Orioles
96-66, first in the AL East, lost in the ALCS

In 2014, the Orioles were able to add another gem to their already illustrious history.  While it may not completely stack up with some of the others in their division, Baltimore has a lot of great baseball in its past and they prove that it wasn’t just something for the past generation but for the present as well.  Baltimore was just a step away from its first World Series since they won it in 1983.  They ran into the October buzzsaw that was the Kansas City Royals, but that shouldn’t take too much of a shine off of what they accomplished.

Of course, the offseason has been a different story.  To talk about that and the season to come, we’ve got three great Oriole bloggers lined up for you this afternoon.  Domenic writes over at Birds Watcher, the Fansided Baltimore blog.  He’s on Twitter @DomenicVadala.  In the middle of our lineup is Matt from Camden Depot, who has taken over the bulk of the duties since the founder is now writing mainly for Baseball Prospectus.  (That should give you some idea of the quality of the blog.)  You can find Matt on Twitter @mattkremnitzer.  Finally, we’ve got a Pepper vet in Derek from Eutaw Street Report.  Derek tweets @BMoreBirdsNest.  I’d suggest giving each of these guys a follow if you want to find out more about that old St. Louis team.

C7o: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

BW: The Orioles had a bit of a tumultuous off season. For the better part of two months, GM Dan Duquette was targeted by division-rival Toronto for a similar position in their front office. While that appears to be over and the situation resolved, that has brought forth lots of questions about how much Duquette was able to do in terms of adding to the team.

The Orioles lost Nelson Cruz, Andrew Miller, and longtime Oriole Nick Markakis to free agency. Replacing all of them will be challenging, however the Orioles will also get the likes of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado back from injury. However ultimately, if Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter are happy with the net result of the off season, the fact is that they’ve earned the right for fans to have patience with them.

CD: It’s never fun when talented players leave the team you cheer for, especially after such an enjoyable season. The Orioles will miss the overall talent of Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis, and Andrew Miller, but in each case, I understand the reasons for letting them go. I rarely fall in the “just do something” camp, but I also felt like the Orioles needed to at least make a move for an outfielder instead of just relying on Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, and David Lough to share innings. The trade for Travis Snider makes sense, and although he’s far from a star, he should provide Buck Showalter with a useful OF/DH bat.

Regardless of the few minor offseason moves, the O’s are clearly counting on healthy and productive seasons from Manny Machado, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis. And considering the number of impending free agents and the way the roster could look in 2016, it’s reasonable for the O’s to not panic and sign a couple of players to lucrative long-term deals. Whether or not that leads to winning in an improved AL East is another question.

ESR: You can’t talk about the Orioles offseason without discussing the Dan Duquette situation. I see that we are going to address that in #3, so here I’ll just say that it was a huge dark cloud hanging over the entire winter.

As for making moves, the best moves the Orioles made were the ones they didn’t make. They resisted the temptation to spend with their hearts and the Atlanta Braves ended up giving Nick Markakis the 4-year, $44M deal that many were afraid the Orioles were going to give him. Markakis is on the down side, and ended up having neck surgery basically as soon as he signed with Atlanta. The Orioles were wise to let somebody else pay for past performance.

They were similarly shrewd in allowing Nelson Cruz to walk. He signed a 4-year, $57M deal with Seattle, and he’ll be 35 in July. He was obviously a huge asset in 2014, but he was a bargain and had a resurgent contract year. He bet on himself, and won, and the O’s got a great deal out of him. Giving him a big contract would have been foolish.

Many O’s fans look at these two players walking as an example of the team being cheap, but their payroll is actually going to increase in 2015 from 2014, even with those two walking. They had a lot of arbitration-eligible players who all got raises.

Overall, I’m not dissatisfied with the personnel moves they made this winter. What they had to do was give themselves options to replace Markakis and Cruz, and they’ve done that by trading for Travis Snider, retaining Delmon Young, and crossing their fingers and hoping for a resurgence from Chris Davis and a repeat of 2014 by Steve Pearce.

C70: What are your expectations of Dylan Bundy this season?

BW: I think that Bundy can be a force for the Orioles at the big league level – in the bullpen. That appears to be the Orioles’ plan for the moment, however that could certainly change. I think he’ll start the season in the minors (unless he blows people away in ST), and then join the Birds as a reliever at some point along the way. However a wild card could be Ubaldo Jimenez; if he struggles again in the rotation, perhaps Bundy will have a shot.

CD: I expect Bundy to pitch well if he’s able to stay healthy. He won’t be rushed to join the major league club, and he shouldn’t be. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to get some innings late in the season, and he could be a fine addition as a power arm, if needed. It’s worth noting that because Bundy signed a major league deal when he was drafted, 2015 is his last option year. So he will be on the major league club starting in 2016, barring a trade or another injury.

ESR: Bundy is an interesting case. While it feels like he’s been in the farm system forever, folks tend to forget that he’s two years younger than Kevin Gausman. What hurts the prospects of Bundy’s future in Baltimore is that he’ll use up his final minor league option in 2015, so he’ll need to be on the Opening Day roster to start 2016. Because of that, he may have to have his return from Tommy John Surgery rushed a bit here this year. I’d like to see Bundy regain some control and velocity that he seemed to be struggling with last year immediately upon returning from TJS, and to dominate minor league hitters again out of the gate.

In a perfect world, he’s contributing to the big league club as a reliever by late Summer, but I’m not holding my breath. I hate it, but I’m afraid he’ll end up as trade bait. I hope I’m wrong.

C70: Has the drama surrounding Dan Duquette been much of a distraction or will it be going forward?

BW: As I said above, it dominated the news for the better part of two months. Whether it affected Duquette’s ability to add to the team is something only known to Duquette. However it’s been a distraction to a lot of people surrounding the team. Whether or not it remains a distraction is up to the Blue Jays. If they passive-aggressively continue to make their interest in Duquette known, then it will continue to be a distraction.

CD: Yes, it has been a big distraction. It hasn’t necessarily affected the team’s offseason plans — at least according to Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, whatever that’s worth — but it’s a story that wouldn’t go away. The Blue Jays announced in late January that Paul Beeston would be returning in 2015 and retiring after the season. So it’s possible the Duquette-to-Toronto rumors will start back up next offseason (or sooner).

I’m not sure the Duquette ordeal had much to do with the O’s sitting out the top free agent market, but it’s at least curious that the Travis Snider deal came together soon after Beeston announced that he would be back for another year. Still, it’s hard for fans not to overreact when a team isn’t doing much and there’s also the possibility of the general manager going to work not just for another team, but for a division rival. I hope the drama is over for good, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re talking about the same thing next year.

ESR: Huge, gigantic, overwhelming distraction. On the heels of the team’s best season since 1997, and making the postseason twice in three years, it’s extremely disappointing to have beat writers quote sources within the organization describing the atmosphere as “toxic.” It’s like the dark years of 98-11 all over again, in that sense.

Duquette has had plenty of chances to put an end to the rumors, only to time and again go the route of the shady politician with a bunch of non-denial denials and evasive answers. I don’t know what the future holds for the front office, but it helps to know that Buck Showalter is highly involved. The organization is in good hands with Buck, even if Duquette’s future is highly uncertain.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BW: If I had to pick one, it would be Jonathan Schoop. He surprised a lot of people by winning the starting second base position as a rookie out of spring training last year. He had a bit of a rocky rookie season, however he also showed signs of promise. Given where he was last year and where he’s expected to be when all’s said and done, he also has the biggest opportunity for improvement.

CD: Probably Manny Machado or Kevin Gausman. Machado’s main problem has been health, so if his knees hold up (not the best thing to be talking about for a 22 year old) he should post solid numbers and could take a step forward offensively. Gausman, meanwhile, should absolutely be in the Orioles’ crowded starting rotation to start the season and given every opportunity to succeed. He maybe hasn’t been as good as quickly as O’s fans would have envisioned, but he has the best pitching arsenal on the staff and clearly has the highest upside.

ESR: Gausman. I expect him to take the ball every fifth day and start to cement himself among the league’s best young arms. Though he’ll technically be the Birds “fourth” or “fifth” starter, he’ll be the one fans feel they can most rely on by the All-Star break.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BW: The division has gotten stronger overall, with the exception of the Orioles and Tampa – on paper, that is. However the Orioles were light years ahead of everyone else last season. While I can’t predict a record or a finish right now, what I will predict is that the O’s will be competitive. While they’ve fallen off a bit, the division was that much worse than them in 2015 to where they’ll still be competitive this season. And it’s not as if they lost everyone – just a couple of players.

CD: 84-78, 3rd in the AL East

ESR: 92-70, second in the division.

C70: What do you like best about being an Orioles fan?

BW: The history is the best part. Baltimore is a smaller city by east coast standards, and that in and of itself brings the fans closer to their teams. But when you throw in the history behind this franchise, from the greatest third baseman of all time (Brooks Robinson) to the Iron Man (Cal Ripken Jr), and it all comes across as a pretty great fan experience.

CD: Camden Yards, because it’s an amazing ballpark.

ESR:

  • I have at least 81 opportunities a year to go to the most beautiful ballpark in MLB to watch the team with the best looking uniforms in the game.
  • Showalter’s press conferences. Seriously, if you’re a fan of another team, go look them up on youtube. “Buck-isms” keep us O’s fans in stitches every night.
  • The cartoon bird
  • Yelling “O” during the Star Spangled Banner. Some don’t like this, but you know what? Francis Scott Key was sitting a few long home runs away from Camden Yards when he wrote that poem, so we can make it our own if we please.
  • A team that most national analysts write off in February or March every year has been right there at the end for three straight seasons (and counting) now.

My thanks to Domenic, Matt and Derek for their time and opinions.  It should be fun to see if “The Oriole Way” leads to another title for these birds!

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You know, there are a lot of ways that you would like spring training to start.  A good speech by Mike Matheny (which is on tap for today, I think).  Lots of “best shape of my life” stories.  Perhaps a goofy photo or two of players in red.

Way, way, WAY down the list is having the staff ace return to St. Louis for a medical exam.

Adam Wainwright left camp yesterday with an abdominal pain that neither he nor the team doctors could really figure out.  The good news is that the pain had already lessened and, given where we are in the baseball calendar, it made sense to go check it out rather than just hoping it’d continue to go away.  As Wainwright said, “Now is not the time to push,” which is completely true.  Much better a few days off in spring than a lot of days off in the season.

It sounds like it’s one of those minor issues that gets a bit overblown because it’s spring, there’s no games to distract, and everything seems magnified as we soak in the coverage after a long winter.  Given the club was going to try to go slow with him anyway given the number of innings that he’s pitched over the last few years, it’s not even enough to qualify as a setback, at least as of yet.  It surely sounds like it will be resolved by the end of the week and we’ll all forget about it in two.

Yet anytime there is an injury, there’s concern, overblown or not.  This rotation is great if healthy but health concerns run up and down this lineup, from Michael Wacha to Carlos Martinez (though that’s more of a limiting-innings-due-to-youth concern) to Jaime Garcia, if he’s in it.  There’s a lot of ifs here and adding another one in the form of Wainwright isn’t the most conducive to good mental health.  While the Cards have a lot of depth to cover a Wainwright absence, such as Garcia or Marco Gonzales, the fact is that you just don’t replace an ace that easily.  I’m not saying John Mozeliak gets on the phone with the Phillies if Waino was going to miss significant time, but I think he might listen a little longer if they called.

Again, though, this is probably one of those early spring stories that is completely forgotten about by time the Clydesdales trot around Busch Stadium.  We hope so, at least.

In more entertaining and enjoyable news, the Cards also have brought in Jose Molina to be a guest catching instructor for the spring.  Molina’s not officially retired, of course–he will be having knee surgery in May, which is probably why he’s still a free agent–but he’s getting to that baseball age where the end is coming if it’s not here and finding out if coaching has appeal is a good transitional step.  Given that Bengie Molina has been coaching for a few years now and Yadier Molina is basically a manager on the field, I expect Jose’s going to take to this whole coaching thing rather well.  You have to figure folks like Michael Ohlman and Carson Kelly are going to be the real beneficiaries of two Molinas and a Matheny helping out with the finer points of being behind the plate.

Bernie Miklasz has a really nice story on Bill DeWitt Jr. out today.   I hadn’t really thought about the difference him being in baseball forever (when your jersey is in the Hall of Fame, that’s something, even if it’s there because Eddie Gaedel wore it) would affect him being a solid owner.  As Bernie points out, most of the owners are just rich guys that wanted a team, for better or worse.  They don’t know the ins and outs of baseball like someone that grew up in it.  Not that they can’t learn, but that immersion puts you well ahead of everyone else and the results have shown it.  I know some don’t agree–and we’ll get to the results of the Cardinal Approval Ratings soon–but ownership is a key reason this has been a golden age for Cardinal baseball.

Things step up a notch today as pitchers face live hitters, even the hitters aren’t doing much swinging.  We’re a week and a day away from the first spring training game against the Marlins, so slowly but surely, the season is coming!

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It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Atlanta Braves
79-83, tied for second in the NL East

It’s not often a team can finish in second place in their division and it can be a pretty yucky year, but that’s pretty much what the Braves accomplished last year.  Of course, the Nationals romped through the NL East, so even a second place finish meant the Braves were 17 games out and under .500.  Even though that campaign wasn’t up to the standards the Braves have set over the years, there wasn’t much of a reaction, with only GM Frank Wren being pushed out the door.

The Braves have had an interesting offseason in the mind of many observers, but determining their plan isn’t always easy to see.  That’s why we have two bloggers for you today to make sense of it all.  Alex Remington writes over at Braves Journal, one of the oldest and most respected blogs on the Internet.  If you aren’t reading him there, you can find him on Twitter @AlexRemington.  Carlos Collazo has written numerous places on the FanSided network but right now you’ll catch him doing the baseball beat at ATL All Day.  He’s also going to be covering the Braves this summer as an associate reporter for MLB.com, which sounds extremely cool.  Follow him on Twitter @CarlosACollazo.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

BJ: I think it’s hard for any fan to be happy with the team’s offseason: after the firing of general manager Frank Wren, the new ruling triumvirate of Johns (Schuerholz, Hart, and Coppolella) engaged in a near-complete teardown and rebuild of the team.

Personally, I believe that IF they felt that a full rebuild of the roster was necessary — and I am not certain that I agree — then they ought to have engaged in a much more thorough rebuild of the front office, rather than swapping out the GM for his assistant GM and leaving much of the rest of the brain trust in place. But the guy in charge is rarely willing to fire himself.

Purely on the merits of the player moves, I think it was a successful offseason. For virtually every move they made, it seems likely that the expected value of the talent entering the organization exceeded the value of the talent exiting the organization, particularly with the Heyward and Upton trades, where the team managed to extract major prospect value from the Cardinals and Padres in return for one-year rentals of their outfielders.

It seems clear that they pursued a strategy of trading hitting for pitching. With the exception of the David Hale trade, almost all of the outgoing players have been hitters (Heyward, Upton, Gattis, La Stella, Kubitza) and most of the notable incoming players have been pitchers (Miller, Fried, Foltynewicz, Jenkins, Vizcaino, Sanchez). Many of the incoming pitchers have seen their stock dip due to arm injuries. The Braves appear to be buying low on pitching at a moment when pitching appears to be cheapest and hitting appears to be most expensive. If the market value of pitching rebounds, and if these pitchers are able to come back strong from their arm injuries, then it will have been a very savvy strategy. But there’s a high risk with any pitching prospect, so there’s a good chance that the strategy could blow up in their faces. And as a fan, it’s disheartening to be told to write off the season. If the farm system has another bad year in 2015, a lot of fans will be calling for the heads of the men who fired Frank Wren.

AAD: Given all of the players who were on their last year with the team, and the state of the farm system after that horrible end to the season, yes. John Hart and John Coppolella did an excellent job buying low on a ton of former top prospects, and if a handful of them are able to pan out, the trades of Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis will certainly be worth it. The farm system went from one of the worst in the game to one of the best in the game in a matter of months. That’s extremely impressive in my book, and should give the team some talent to work with when the move into their new stadium in Cobb County in 2017–when they’ll look to actually compete.

C70: What are your expectations for former Cardinal Shelby Miller this year?

BJ: I’m high on Miller. His velocity has stayed up, which I take as a good sign. He’s extremely similar to our Julio Teheran, right down to their up-and-down seasons in 2012 and their terrific rookie years in 2013. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the rotation. I just hope that if he shows any sign of shoulder trouble they’ll let him take the time he needs to rest. It’s not like they’re going for it this year.

AAD: Shelby Miller will be one of the many new arms to watch for the Braves this year, and I’m excited to see him. After an up-and-down 2014, Miller seemed to figure it out near the end of the season by adding in a few different fastballs and working out the curve. His first half ERA was 4.29 and his second half was 2.92 after tinkering with the pitches, so I’m confident that he’ll look like a No. 2/3 starter this year with Atlanta.

C70: Will Nick Markakis be enough to make teams pitch to Freddie Freeman?

BJ: Nick Markakis is a multiyear stopgap — the kind of mediocre veteran for whom the term “professional hitter” was invented. We’re hoping that he’ll manage to be league-average for the first couple years of the deal, but even if I believed that hitter protection wasn’t a myth, I wouldn’t expect him to be able to protect anybody in the lineup. I’m not apoplectic that they signed him, because it’s nice that they’re spending money on something and because it’s hard to find even league-average outfielders these days (though I wish they’d signed Nori Aoki, who was significantly cheaper).

It annoys me, though, that it appears that part of the marketing strategy around the Markakis signing concerned the fact that he’s from Atlanta. I wouldn’t mind being proved wrong, but I have a hard time believing that there are Braves fans outside of his family who will make their decision to see the Braves on the basis of whether Nick Markakis is on the field.

AAD: Nick Markakis is a good baseball player. But he’s certainly not great. He’s not as good as any of the hitters that the Braves traded away this offseason and he’s a far cry from what Jason Heyward is. But he’s a veteran guy who’s always hit for contact, and that fits the mold of what this new Braves front office is going for. He’s a .290 career hitter, which will really fire up some of those old school baseball fans out there, but he doesn’t bring much pop or speed or really anything else. And that’s OK. But Freddie Freeman is the ONLY bat pitchers should be worried about with this lineup.

C7o: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

BJ: 2015 will be an important year for Andrelton Simmons. He looked very promising at the plate in 2012 and 2013, but 2014 was a disaster for him offensively. He has an interesting problem: he has poor plate discipline but rarely strikes out. He swings at far too many pitches, and as a result he makes a lot of weak contact and rarely walks. If he can learn to spit on some of the pitches that he’s currently popping up to short, he’ll significantly improve his plate approach. Of course, even if he fails to improve on his 2014 hitting performance, he could still be the Ozzie Smith of his generation, but considering how few hitters are on the team or even in the farm system, we need all the offense we can get.

AAD: Hmmm…. this one’s an interesting question, just because there are going to be so many new players stepping into bigger roles. I’m excited to see Jose Peraza, but he should start at Triple-A. Christian Bethancourt seems to already have the starting catching job taken, which is a bit scary given his offensive track record, but he’s got a cannon behind the plate.

But, getting around to answering your question, I guess I’d look to Andrelton Simmons and hope that he can have an offensive season closer to 2013 than 2014. It would be great to see him shorten up his swing, but if that’s not the case a return to more than just seven home runs would help. I’m still not confident he’ll make “the greatest strides”, but he’s got the potential to be a better hitter than he was last season with some tweaks to the swing.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

BJ: On a podcast the other day, I said 72-90, 4th place. That may be overly pessimistic: depending on how good the other teams in the division are and depending on how good our pitching is, the Braves could probably win anywhere from 70-78 games. But I don’t really see how the Braves finish any higher than 3rd place: the Braves will be better than the Phillies and *may* be better than the Mets or Marlins, but almost certainly not both.

AAD: Even though the offense is going to be a poor sight this season, I’m not as down on the team as some might be. Their starting rotation should be really good and the bullpen has the potential to be better than last season. Last year, the Padres had the worst offense in baseball and still managed 77 wins.

I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the Braves end the season around the 75-80 win mark–so pushing .500 the entire year, and third or fourth in the division edging out the Phillies for sure and possibly the Marlins.

C70: What do you like best about being a Braves fan?

BJ: The Braves have had a lot of continuity in the recent past. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox have effectively run the team for the past 30 years, and they’ve captured 15 division titles and notched two wild-card appearances in that time, along with the 1995 World Championship, and have been one of the most consistently successful sports franchises in any league in the world. Braves fans are well-known for complaining about the Braves’ record of postseason failure, but it seems rather churlish to moan about a team that makes it to the first round of the playoffs almost every year. I’m lucky, and extremely spoiled, to root for a team that has been so consistently good for so long.

But I’m not certain that continuity is still a strength. The frenetic offseason is a bold roll of the dice, but it seemed to have been at least partially motivated by spite towards Frank Wren, who assembled the team behind the 2014 debacle and whom the Braves wasted no time in badmouthing both off and on the record as soon as he was out the door.

For example, to quote Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley: “It has been clear from the day of Frank Wren’s “termination” that two of the three Johns — team presidents Hart and Schuerholz — hate every single thing the former general manager ever did. (It’s less clear whether assistant GM John Coppollela does. He did, after all, work for Wren.)”

But all of Wren’s old bosses are still in place, and they were his bosses while he was the GM and making all of the decisions that they apparently decided to have retroactively opposed. Like I said before, I think the front office may need a much more thorough rebuild, and that means that the guys who have run the team for the past 30 years might want to step aside and let someone else hold the reins.

AAD: Watching Andrelton Simmons play shortstop. And it’s not even close. The plays this kid makes on a regular basis are ridiculous, I don’t need to tell anyone who keeps up with baseball that. I’m a sucker for good defense (and infield defense is clearly the most fun), so Simmons is the natural choice here.

My thanks to Alex and Carlos for their insight.  It’s difficult not to think of the Braves not as the class of that division and we’ll have to wait and see how long it is until they regain the top spot, but it apparently won’t be this year.

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Drawing Warmth From Jupiter

I sit here able to see the couple of inches of snow that fell yesterday.  I sit here iced in, at least for the morning, keeping me from heading to work.  (Yes, I know, you Northerners are a hale, hearty lot that would head to work on your Tauntaun.  Yet 90 degrees this summer will get you a “heat advisory” and us a “unseasonably cool”.)  So it’s wonderful to have a number of stories written by the Cardinal beat writers and columnists to warm my heart, if not my fingers (the home computer room doesn’t have heat).

First off, Bernie Miklasz is writing a lot about Jason Heyward, which is understandable in many aspects.  For one, he’s the main new face on a team that’s been together for a while.  Two, he was the only real offseason acquisition, him and Jordan Walden in the same deal.  And three, Heyward sounds like a fairly interesting person to follow around.  Bernie’s description of Heyward getting to know his teammates, of his interactions with Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter, is a nice inside look at how a new guy can come to be a part of the whole, even if that whole has been there for a while.

Mike Matheny, who has been reticent to say anything about the lineup over the winter, has come out and said Heyward wouldn’t be the leadoff man, which seems to have put Heyward at ease.  While none of us expected J-Hey to hit that high in the order, given how he didn’t care for the role in Atlanta, it has to be freeing to know that he’s going to be able to have a different mindset at the plate.  I think one of the reasons many people are excited about Heyward’s potential is the fact that he won’t be tailoring his game to that leadoff role, having to take pitches, worrying about really working a pitcher.  While he’ll probably do some of that anyway while later in the order, if he sees a good pitch, he can take a rip at it, no matter if it’s the first or the fifth in the at-bat.  He’ll hopefully often be coming up with runners on as well, which will change the pitcher’s plan to dealing with him, rather than bases empty after the pitcher bats, freeing the opposing hurler to really attack him.

Bernie runs the numbers on Heyward and comes out optimistic.  While it seems unlikely we’ll have a 30-homer guy on our hands, there’s no doubt that he’ll be an upgrade over what the Cards had in right field last year.  Tara asked about Heyward in the roundtables and most of us seem to be content with 15-18 HR and continues his ability to get on base, it’s going to be a fun year watching him, especially on the defensive side of things.

However, and I know you’ll be shocked, but Heyward isn’t the only player down in Jupiter.  In fact, I’m not sure there is anyone missing from the camp right now, which is good.  (Actually, I see Derrick Goold notes less than six players haven’t done a workout, but they could be there.)   Games start in just about a week (so hard to believe, so ready for it to happen!) so everyone’s getting their pre-spring schedule workouts in.

There’s a lot of talk about speeding up the game.  Now, my opinion, you could cut a commercial from each break and you’d get more savings of time than most anything else you are going to do, but that’s basically a non-starter for the money-focused game.  A pitch clock is just nuts and while I understand that watching a hitter fidget can be frustrating and time-consuming, there’s also a lot of money on the line.  We don’t want player to give away at-bats, right?  So if that lets them process, lets them think about what’s coming, lets them prepare for the pitch, isn’t that them trying to do their best?  Are we going to discourage that?

Anyway, one rule idea that I’d not seen floated was apparently to force pitchers to face more than one batter.  Which is unworkable even on the face of it, as Randy Choate points out.  Choate has given this a lot of thought, of course, because that’s the best use of him.  If LOOGYs were outlawed, only outlaws would have LOOGYs.  (Wait, that’s not right.)  More to the point, Choate would be out of a job.  We’ve seen that he’s not that great when facing righties, even as Matheny tried to stretch him out last year to not be that specialist that he should be.  Choate’s best use is to come in, face a lefty, and get out.  And that’s what we’ve come to expect from baseball, right?  I mean, Tony La Russa set us on this path but we’re not returning to the olden days of starters throwing 50 complete games or 10 man pitching staffs.  We’re just not.  This is baseball and it’s the best way to optimize your chances of winning.  I don’t think that rule would go anywhere and I know Choate is glad for it.

In the same notes article by Goold, he talks about Michael Ohlman, the catcher that the Cards acquired from the Orioles a few weeks ago.  While there’s been plenty of talk about Ohlman’s unnatural height for a catcher, I hadn’t realized that Matheny wasn’t much smaller when he was behind the dish.  Talk about a good place for a young guy!  You’ve got a manager that knows pretty much exactly what to do in your unique situation and you’ve got one of the best catchers of all time in Yadier Molina helping you with the rest of it.  Would we be surprised if this combination turned Ohlman into a strong Cardinal prospect?  I don’t think so.  That’s potent stuff right there, especially since the knock on him for the most part has been behind the plate, not at it.

The great thing about spring training is that, eventually, almost every player gets their turn in the paper spotlight, getting a feature written up on them, talking about their offseason and their goals for the coming year.  Today Kolten Wong gets the treatment, talking about how Hawaii was so excited about his offseason but how that is only fueling him to be a better player.  What I found most interesting was that Matheny thinks Wong can be one of the next generation of Cardinal leaders.

We don’t think about it much, but the top guys in this group aren’t going to be around forever.  Molina’s already put himself in the longevity conversation with Ozzie Smith and Bob Gibson.  Adam Wainwright is 33 and, while nobody is calling him decrepit, time does remain undefeated.  It’s time to start putting the succession plan in place, informally, grooming tomorrow’s leaders.  I could see Wong being one of those.  He’s a homegrown Cardinal, which helps.  (That’s not a requirement, because I think Heyward if he signed an extension could also be one of those guys.)  He’s seen disappointment, he’s seen success, and he doesn’t seem like the shy, retiring type.  It will be interesting to see if we hear more about Wong’s leadership skills as time goes by.

All this and we still didn’t cover Walden, who gets some love as well.  I’ve not seen Walden’s delivery, the major point of that article, but it sounds pretty interesting.  If you are bringing heat plus some deception or a distraction to the hitter, that’ll serve you real well, especially as a reliever that sees a limited number of hitters.  Having him in the back of the bullpen this year really looks like it will help us get over the loss of Pat Neshek and the moving of Carlos Martinez to the rotation.  Putting him and an effective (hopefully) Trevor Rosenthal at the end of games will shorten things up nicely.

And now I’ve sat in this room long enough.  Must go find some real heat, not just the reflected warmth of the green grass of spring training.  The Braves’ Playing Pepper will be up this afternoon, so be sure to return for that!

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It’s one of the annual traditions here at C70 At The Bat, our trip around the majors in blog form.  Since 2009, I’ve been asking bloggers from other teams about what’s going to happen with their squad in the coming season.  It’s always fun to see what the opposition is thinking and how optimistic some of their most devoted and intelligent fans are.  This year, the Pepper series is brought to you by Out of the Park Baseball 16, coming soon for PC.  Preorder this outstanding baseball simulation today!

Arizona Diamondbacks
64-98, last in the NL West

It’s been a wild and gritty ride for Arizona fans over the past few years.  After two straight 81-81 seasons, the bottom fell out from Kirk Gibson‘s squad in 2014.  While injuries played a part, it’s probably not a coincidence that Gibson and GM Kevin Towers were let go after the season.  Now the club has new faces with a bit of late ’80s flare, as Tony La Russa‘s in the front office and Dave Stewart is the GM.

To guide us through the desert, we turn to Jim McClennan from AZ Snake Pit, the SB Nation blog that covers the Diamondbacks.  Jim’s on Twitter @AZSnakepit, so give him a follow.  We also have Ryan Morrison from Inside the ‘Zona, which is the Arizona blog selected for ESPN’s Sweetspot blog network.  You’ll find Ryan on Twitter @InsidetheZona.  Two great bloggers to bring the heat of Arizona to lead it off this year!

(As an added bonus, you can hear Ryan and his co-blogger at ITZ talk about the questions on their latest podcast.)

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

AZ: In some ways yes, in other ways no. Whenever you get a new GM, part of the job is always clearing out whoever the new arrival perceives as “dead wood,” and we saw that with the departure of Miguel Montero. I’d like to have seen more – Aaron Hill, certainly, and I’d also have got rid of Mark Trumbo – but it was a start. The signing of Yasmany Tomas to the biggest contract in franchise history was certainly a bold move, but the trade for Jeremy Hellickson is a dubious replacement for the loss of Wade Miley. The starting rotation in almost entirely a series of question-marks and don’t even get me started on the catcher’s position.

However, the plan appears to be for this year to be a season of assessment, giving us a chance to see what we have in terms of young players like Ender Inciarte, Rubby de la Rosa, etc and discover if they can be building blocks going forward. I’m comfortable with that, and we should have a better idea of what we need to do at the end of the season. A new stream of revenue from local TV is approaching, and next year’s free-agent class of starting pitchers is deeper than this winter’s, so I’m okay with us missing out on James Shields, etc.

ITZ: This offseason, the D-backs moved aggressively to re-make the club – and as is often the case when that happens, the moves themselves were a little all over the place. The main focus appears to be 2016 or 2017, but the team is at the same time committed to being at least competitive in the short term and avoiding embarrassment. In that context, they did do what they set out to do – the Jeremy Hellickson trade doesn’t quite fit, and the team is probably going to find out that they didn’t fully appreciate what they had in Wade Miley, but they’ve put themselves in a position to get lucky.

C70: What do you think the biggest change will be now that Chip Hale is the manager?

AZ: Probably a greater level of passion? When we got Kirk Gibson, we were all expecting fire, but that hardly ever happened: most of the time, it was like watching a statue manage the team. Even his trips to the mound seemed like a painful and arduous ordeal by the end. It’s hard to be sure beyond that was Hale’s style will be like, as this is his first time managing in the major-leagues. But I get the impression that sound execution of basic fundamentals is going to be stressed, and perhaps also more emphasis (sigh) on putting the ball in play. I sigh, since I’m not of the opinion that strikeouts “matter”, except in a very small and specific fraction of circumstances. Tony La Russa has publicly stated his aversion to sabermetric analysis in the dugout, which I think is shooting ourselves needlessly in the foot.

ITZ: We keep hearing that Chip Hale is bringing a ton of energy to the job of manager, but I do expect that he’ll be working closely with the new D-backs front office by committee. I doubt that Tony La Russa will be injecting himself into day-to-day decisions normally reserved for the manager – he’s been pretty blunt about how the manager needs to run that show on his own – but Hale is going to be one part of a larger community of baseball men. “True baseball” men, even.

C70: Who is the Opening Day starter and who will be the best starting pitcher by the end of the year?

AZ: Probably Josh Collmenter, though might be Jeremy Hellickson. The former was our best pitcher last year, but the latter has the advantage of being a shiny acquisition of the new management. Could be just about anyone by the end of the season, as last year showed: Collmenter wasn’t even in the rotation on Opening Day, starting the season on the bullpen. This year, it’s possible our best starter may not even be on the 40-man roster at this point, with prospects Archie Bradley and Aaron Blair both potentially making their debuts in 2015. Of those that are, I think de la Rosa has the potential to have a breakout season, and may have the highest upside for 2015, but that’s by no means certain.

ITZ: I expect that Josh Collmenter will be given the ball for Opening Day – he’s one of only two starting pitchers that have a rotation spot more or less guaranteed, and he’s a safe choice as an organization guy who has already ingratiated himself with the fan base. By season’s end, I think it’ll be Patrick Corbin who will reclaim his 2013 role as the team’s ace, however – the command may not be all the way back this season and he may rely less on the slider that helped him take that next level step in 2013, but everyone on the staff has warts that are likely to make them less reliable.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

AZ: If Tomas lives up to expectations, he should have a Rookie of the Year-worthy campaign, though I’m not sure how he’ll handle the expected transition to first-base. But since there are already expectations there, not sure how much “strides” actually apply. Who the team really needs to step up is Chris Owings. With the trade of Didi Gregorius to the Yankees, the shortstop position is now unequivocally his, and he has to demonstrate he has the ability to take it. He’s still only 23, so would be among the youngest regular starters in the league, and the potential is there: we saw that in flashes last season. Delivering on that over the course of a full, 162-game season is what we need in 2015.

ITZ: I think Yasmany Tomas is the player most likely to take some big strides this year, as I expect he’ll struggle at the outset of the season. Thing is, on the position player side, there really aren’t that many candidates (other than Jake Lamb, who I believe in, but who might not get the necessary playing time). The team had some breakthroughs last year from David Peralta, A.J. Pollock and Ender Inciarte, and Chris Owings established himself as well – but other than Owings, even projecting a repeat is being optimistic. Once the season is over, I think we’ll definitely find that it’s a pitcher who made the biggest jump this year. Robbie Ray, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Archie Bradley, or even someone else – we just don’t know who.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

AZ: I don’t think they’ll be as bad as last season, and I’m thinking around a 76-86 mark. If they can get back to the .500 level, I’ll be delighted with that, but I just want to see a platform on which we can then build going forward. Teams don’t go from the worst mark in the majors to the playoffs in a single season, so I’m willing to be patient, as long as there’s a sense of a real plan in place, and some semblance of progress. I don’t think they’ll crack the top three in the division, but might just be able to hold off the Rockies for fourth place, and stay out of the cellar.

ITZ: I’m going to end up on the optimistic side, 75 wins. I think this team is committed to not giving away this season, which means there’s going to be no fire sale in July. That alone could keep the team from sinking into the 60s again. And call me crazy, but I think the team will end up third in the division when all is said and done, ahead of the Rockies, but also ahead of one other team that suffers a collapse (most likely Giants or Padres).

C70: What do you like best about being a Diamondbacks fan?

AZ: Right now, following the young prospects. We have arguably the best set of pitching prospects in the majors, and I’m optimistic these will give us a solid foundation on which the team can build going forward. The future is certainly looking a lot more fun than the recent past! Historically? Having won the best World Series in recent history.

ITZ: The best thing about being a D-backs fan is the community. I’m a Boston guy, born and raised, and still live there – and the great thing about it is you can have a Red Sox conversation whenever you want, whether it’s an acquaintance on an elevator or an old woman in a waiting room. It feels like a whole universe, though. The D-backs fan base feels much more like a community, and the organization does a great job of fostering that.

My thanks to Jim and Ryan for their thoughts on the club.  With TLR out there, some Cardinal fans will be paying a bit more attention to the Snakes or at least have a team to watch on MLB.tv when the St. Louis game is over!

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Seems like every year about this time, I make the same analogy.  Spring training is Lent for the baseball fan.  Of course, it’s not just me that’s making the connection.

If, unlike me, you didn’t grow up in the Christian church (or were part of a denomination that didn’t emphasize this), Lent is the 40 days (not including Sundays) right before Easter.  It’s a time of preparation.  Many people give up something for Lent, a tradition that seems to be what most associate with this time of year.  However, many others add a new discipline, whether it’s a focus on Bible reading, on extra prayer time, on something that they feel can help them on their walk with God.

Given the fact that Easter moves around in March and April, spring training doesn’t always perfectly correspond with this part of the Christian calendar.  However, it’s almost to the day this year, as today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and the Cardinals officially begin reporting tomorrow.  Both end on April 5, as St. Louis faces Chicago on Easter night.  Six weeks of focus, dedication and training, no matter which way you want to look at it.

Even though there is sacrifice involved, both spring training and Lent are wonderful times of the year.  We move from the cold and snow in most places to the green grass and budding flowers.  We go from lack to abundance.  We go from grumpiness to optimism.  We are transformed, if we allow the transformation.

I’m no theologian, of course.  I’d suggest reading some of those that are on the matter as they could do a much better job than I of making these connections.

What you come here for is the baseball portion of the equation (the other is just an added bonus) and we start seeing more of that as players continue to file into Jupiter.  Perhaps the most notable person to come into camp recently has been Carlos Martinez.  When we last saw Martinez, he was mourning the passing of his good friend Oscar Taveras.  Many of us still remember the video interview he gave where he sat at a picnic bench and just looked absolutely lost.  Now, he seems focused on honoring the memory of his friend by playing the best baseball he can.

As Doug talked about yesterday, Yadier Molina requested that Martinez get a locker in Jupiter next to him.  That’s a move that can only help Martinez as he prepares for what well may be his first year fully in the big league rotation.  Getting advice from a respected player like Molina, who knows pitching better than any non-pitcher could and will be able to give him strategies, tips, and ways to prepare to be a strong starting pitcher.  He’ll also be there for other types of advice as well.  He’s been there for unexpected death, when his father passed away in 2008.  (I just found Benjie Molina’s account of that time, which is a powerful read.)  He’s known loss as well.  While no doubt Martinez has many people that he’s relied on since that October night, Molina can be one that he can rely on daily throughout the season.

It’s interesting, if not surprising, to hear that the Cardinals want to limit his innings this year as he transitions into the rotation on a full-time basis.  If you are limiting his innings, if you want to be easier on Adam Wainwright‘s workload, if you don’t want to stress Michael Wacha, then either the bullpen is going to be a huge factor or you are going to have to get creative.  The Cards have the option for the latter, what with Marco Gonzales and the apparently-healthy-at-the-moment Jaime Garcia, so we’ll see what happens as the spring progresses.  Could we see some sort of modified six-man rotation?  It would seem unlikely, but there could be ways of letting Gonzales (for example) swing between the bullpen and the rotation while letting people like Martinez or Wainwright skip a start here or there.  Something to keep an eye on.

A couple of pitchers returning from injury got the paper spotlight yesterday.  Kevin Siegrist and John Gast both seem to be healthier this year and able to really fire their pitches with the velocity they’ve come to expect.  If Siegrist is healthy and shows the form he did in 2013, he’s on the team.  (He’s probably there if he’s healthy and just shows improvement from last year–reaching 2013 levels is probably a tall order.)  Gast is a different story.  There seems to be no way to fit him on this roster.  There are enough long guys not in the rotation that the bullpen really isn’t an option.  The rotation is already crowded.  Gast would seem to be Memphis bound anyway to make sure that he’s fully recovered, but with Gonzales ahead of him on the depth chart, it might be tough to see him in St. Louis anytime soon.

Matt Holliday expects the offense to be more aggressive and powerful this season and is doing his part to encourage that mindset.  On the one hand, it couldn’t hurt to be a little less picky, I don’t guess, but I don’t think we want to see a complete “boom or bust” lineup.  There is value in drawing walks and getting good pitches to hit, which I don’t think Holliday would deny.  I think he’s saying when you see your pitch, go after it, even if it’s early in the count.  He’s also correct that just given regular corrections, the offense should be better.  A lot of folks were at “the bottom of their potential” as he put it.  Surely Jason Heyward will be better than Allen Craig was last year.  Matt Carpenter may improve his power output, Matt Adams may hit a few more long balls at the expense of his average.  This lineup still seems like a strong one, strong enough to back this outstanding pitching staff and then some.

I’d like to say that as part of my spring training/Lent discipline that I’d post everyday.  No guarantees I can get back into that habit, but I’ll do what I can.  If nothing else, you’ve got our countdown to Opening Night going.  Just 46 more days!

 

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Warming Up On a Cold Day

We’ve actually been pretty fortunate here in Arkansas this winter, depending on how you look at it.  Before Thanksgiving, we had a bit of snow, probably less than an inch.  Until last night, that was really all the winter precipitation we’d had.  Now there’s some sleet outside, enough to keep me from trying the roads to get to work until much later.

However, even though my hands are freezing as I type from our computer room (which was a converted garage by the last folks and as such has no heat and air), my heart is warmed because baseball players are in Jupiter.  It’s really happening, folks.  We are seeing baseball again!

How much better does it get than Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha on the mound throwing to Yadier Molina?  If that doesn’t say Cardinal baseball, I don’t know what does.  We have Jason Heyward hitting off tees wearing red.  Just seeing the bright sunshine and the bright green fields makes my heart ten times lighter.

That also means that we get some news, such as the fact Wacha is seemingly better than expected as it relates to his return from shoulder issues.  It’s great to hear that things are going so well for the young pitcher.  However, as Tara mentioned last night on Gateway To Baseball Heaven, let’s wait and see how he feels as the repetitions increase, the stress becomes greater and he gets into game shape.  There’s no reason to believe that the stress reaction will come back so quickly, but given how often Chris Carpenter came to spring feeling great and then didn’t break camp with the squad, it’s not surprising that we should feel a little cautious.  A healthy Wacha is a huge asset to this club and it’s very good to hear that he’s at least coming into camp very strong instead of having to build up to that throughout the spring.

Having Heyward down already seems to be a good sign.  It’s possible he’s always an early bird, but if so that means he’ll probably fit in well with the rest of the Cardinals, at least where work ethic and dedication to the game come into play.  Much better for him to be there greeting folks than the current Redbirds reporting and wondering where the new guy is at.  It’s one piece of the puzzle, of course, but it does seem like Heyward’s going to be a good addition to the clubhouse.

And now I have to go find some heat.  So glad that spring is coming, at least from a baseball perspective!

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As you know, or at least you should, right now I’m in the middle of doing my annual project where I solicit folks’ opinions on different players, the team, etc.  (And if you haven’t done the Cardinal Approval Ratings yet, you really need to do it!  We’ve got 65 of the 100 input goal and just over a week left to get the rest!)  While I typically am looking for numerical values on this, I do have a section for comments.

Last week, a fellow named James filled out the form and left some comments.  My intention is not to disparage James at all–I sincerely appreciate the time he took to give his input and, while I am going to discuss his opinions, I have a general idea where he’s coming from, even if I completely disagree with that location.  So don’t take this as mockery because that’s not what it’s intended to be at all.  Everyone’s entitled to their opinions, of course.

However, James’s comments took me back in my mental time machine.  Let me share them with you.  These were copied directly from my spreadsheet, not touched by me at all.

once again the St Louis cardinals have proved how cheep they are. The fans put out all the money and the St Louis management spends it on them selves in stead of high quality player. I personally think the fans should boycott the team by not attending games. If St Louis management does not want to put a high quality team on the field the fans should not participate in their lack of concerns for the fans.The team has gone down hill since Tony, and Albert left. currently there are at least 6 teams in the national league better than St Louis . What does St Louis do? Put at the best a middle tear team on the field. Charge the fans outragious prices to watch triple a and double a players in the majors. If the truth be told I wonder if that is why Tony and albert left. cardinal management is just money hungry not willing to put truly good players on the field; but they seem to be very happy to charge what ever it takes to make the owners richer. It will be 20 years and probably new ownership before the cardinals are once again a team to be proud of. Right now I have to believe the team is virtual- just spin and hype. I remember being 6 year old and listening to the cardinals on the radio. I will not do the same this year.

I hope at some point there is a team owner and manager who wants to win the world series each year. That are willing to do their best to make this happen. I don’t believe the cardinal management is any where near this point. The team appears to be going down hill. I believe it will be many years before they have the true respect of their pears.

in my mine I have to wonder if you are not paid to hype the cardinals. not tell the complete truth and not tell the truth about the quality and capability of the team. I have to wonder if it is such that you can not speak truthfully of the lack of a quality team on the field.

thank you for allowing me to speak freely.

Reading that, I was immediately taken back to the late ’90s, perhaps right after the turn of the century.  The Cardinals, as you remember, struggled after going to the playoffs in 1996 and didn’t return there until 2000.  They then made three straight playoff appearances but couldn’t reach the World Series.  Many complained that Bill DeWitt’s wallet wasn’t open far enough or that Walt Jocketty (who was GM at the time) wasn’t able to get the right players.  And, of course, there were many shots thrown at Tony La Russa as well, saying he couldn’t win the big one, that his overmanaging style hurt the team in the playoffs.

If you were there, you remember those comments.  They didn’t stop with a World Series berth or, honestly, not completely with a World Series title.  In fact, the first multi-part project I tackled while writing this blog dealt with folks bad-mouthing ownership and that was after the 2007 season.

There are always going to be those that aren’t completely satisfied, of course.  Back in the pre-World Series days, there was a significant portion of the online community called The Faction (at least, they were most often referred to in that manner) that couldn’t wait to run TLR out of town and if DeWitt went with him, so much the better.  These are the guys that pooled their money to have a “Fire La Russa” banner flown over a spring training game.  We’re talking serious folks.

Perhaps I’m in an insulated rose-colored-glasses circle, but I don’t see much of those kind of comments these days, which is why James’s remarks took me aback.  I really didn’t think there was anyone out there that would argue with four World Series trips in a decade, with two titles, with only four seasons where the games ended when the regular season calendar did since there was a 19 at the beginning of the date.

It’s interesting to me that James feels the team has gone downhill since 2011, even as they have just completed a fairly historic fourth straight trip to the NLCS.  I’m wondering how a middle-tier team has won the division the last two seasons.  I’m not sure which six teams James would put above the Cardinals–I’d say you could make a case for the Nationals and the Dodgers, maybe the Giants since they are defending champs, we’ll have to wait and see how the new-look Padres come together–but even if there were six (which, as you see, I would take issue with) that doesn’t mean the Cards are a middling squad.  There wouldn’t be much of a gap at all between them and the top team in the majors, no matter how you did the rankings.

Sports Illustrated gave them a B for their offseason, including items like “well-managed payroll”.  That’s not a code for being stingy, though.  I mean, if the DeWitt family was “money-hungry”, would they have signed Jon Jay to a longer extension than necessary, an extension some believe is an overpay?  Would they have gone so deep with Lance Lynn on his new contract?  Wouldn’t they have just stuck Stephen Piscotty in right field instead of making the trade for Jason Heyward?

Perhaps the stingy part is left over from the Albert Pujols negotiations?  Yet this club didn’t just leave Pujols out to dry, not engaging him at all.  From all reports, they were willing to give him $210 million, the largest deal ever for a Cardinal.  It’s not their problem that he took a larger offer from the Angels, a deal that many Anaheim fans might be regretting already, much less when the back half of the deal comes through.

Throwing money at a problem rarely solves anything.  We can look to government for myriad examples of that.  While the Cards maybe could have broken the bank to sign Max Scherzer, why should they when they have capable pitching already on the roster?  Maybe it’s not as experienced, but it’s 1) got high upside, 2) only going to get better, while you could argue Scherzer will soon start declining and 3) are already here, costing you nothing.  Being a wise steward of your resources–spending when you should, not at every possible opportunity–is the way to run a franchise.

Maybe that’s why “St. Louis Cardinals” and “model organization” wind up so often in the same sentence.  And it’s not just fawning local coverage (though I’d say that the local coverage is just fine on pointing out flaws on the club), but it’s folks like the New York Post, Grantland, and Sports On Earth.  A good portion of baseball fans have felt the envy and turned it to hate for this club, which is a darn good way to know you are doing something right.

It’s interesting that James believes that the current management doesn’t want to win the World Series each year.  You’d think if that was the case, we’d not seen moves like this past season, when John Lackey (a fairly expensive guy, at least last season) was acquired for two home-grown (read cheap) players in Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.  Why do you make a move like that?  It’s not for the long-term future.  It’s not to reduce payroll.  It’s to be in a position to win.

Billy Beane once said that his magic (well, he may have used another word) didn’t work in the playoffs.  Getting there, getting to that three-week crapshoot when one bad start or one missed ball can be the difference between moving on and going home, that’s what shows what teams are made of.  The Cardinals continually get there.  They are doing it right and giving themselves a chance to make it deep into October.  That’s all you can ask.

I mean, if the Cards hit Barry Zito like they should have, they at least go to the World Series in 2012.  Assuming the same ’13 results, that’d be three straight years in the Series.  How is that not wanting to win every year?  Are the players just winning to spite ownership?  Are DeWitt and John Mozeliak just not smart enough to figure out how to lose those games?

I’m pretty sure St. Louis has the respect of their peers, James.  After all, there are numerous cases where other GMs have complemented the team and the way they go about things.  Even Commissioner Selig noted it when he came through not long ago.  Factor out the “speak nice to the locals” if you want, but there’s still kernels of truth there.

And no, I’m not paid to speak well of the club.  Would that it were so!  Save for the once-yearly trip to a game, the Cards have never compensated me or any other blogger for our opinions.  I’ve also known them to invite folks fairly hostile to them online to their annual blogger events.  They aren’t at all trying to squash dissent or criticisms on line.  At least, if they ever have, I’ve not heard of it.  I feel like I would have.

I don’t know why James believes there’s not a quality team on the field, when there is a rotation that’s in the top 10, maybe top 5 in baseball, a lineup that has home run hitters up and down it (though we’ll have to see if they produce like they should) and a pretty shut-down bullpen.  It’ s not perfect, but it’s a far sight better than most any other squad and there are a whole lot of fans that would love to switch spots with us.

Again, that’s James’s opinion and I can respect that he believes it and most likely has reasons of his own to back it up.  I personally feel like we’ve moved past those excuses and rationales into a golden age of Cardinal baseball, which given their history is really saying something.

I know I’d rather be living in this present than much of the Cardinal past.

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A lot of things happened back in 2009 here at this blog. That was the first spring that I did the Playing Pepper series, which will be returning in a couple of weeks. However, that was also the first time I did the Cardinal Approval Ratings. Apparently, I had a lot of time on my hands back then.

Now, if you are new to the blog, you might be wondering what the approval ratings are all about. It’s fairly simple, really. It’s my way of getting a feel for what Cardinal Nation thinks about certain players, media and other sorts of things. It’s a numerical scale from 0-100 and you fill out a nice form with the numbers relating to the folks (or ideas) listed.

This is a totally personal thing. For instance, I’d probably give Tyler Lyons (if he were on the form) a strong score because I’m a fan of his, he did the podcast, he wears #70. That factors into my equation. Others might want to look just at the numbers, what he does for the team. Their score might be a little lower than mine.

It’s all about how you feel about the person. When you see him in the lineup, what’s your reaction? When you see an interview, is it a positive experience? If you are listening to him do a broadcast, do you find yourself reaching for the remote?

I’ve typically felt that a 70 should be a decent baseline score for any Cardinal. If you wanted to look at it in relation to letter grades, that’s a C. If you have no opinion one way or the other, I’d think you’d put up a score around that mark. Then you factor in what influences you one way or the other.

It’s been pretty interesting to see the results over the past six years. We saw Albert Pujols go from 90.4% to 54.9% when he left St. Louis. Surprisingly, Mike Shannon has dropped every year we’ve done this, coming in a shade under 80% last year. It’s no big shock to see Joe Strauss bringing up the back end of the ratings most every year.

Last year we only had 67 responders, which was down from the past. My goal this year is to see 100 folks fill out the form. So share it on Twitter, put it on Facebook, wherever Cardinal fans congregate, I want them to get their chance to make their voice heard.

You can follow this link to the form or you can fill it out below, whichever you want. I’ll leave this open until February 22nd. I appreciate your time and you should see the results in early March. Have fun!

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I realize that some of you read the title of this post, took a glance out of the window, and snorted hard enough that it sounded like the running of the bulls.  It can be difficult to believe in spring with white snow covering the ground. (That has not been a problem here all winter and, in fact, it’s supposed to be almost 70 this weekend.)

However, spring truly is coming.  Two weeks from today the Cardinal pitchers and catcher officially report. Many are already down there or will be in the next few days. I saw a beautiful overhead shot of the spring training complex in Jupiter online yesterday, which I would hunt up for you but I’ve got limited time and this ancient computer would take 15 minutes to find it. The Super Bowl thankfully is over (even if people REFUSE to stop yakking about it) and we are heading full-steam into baseball.

The Cardinals know spring is coming as well and they’ve made a couple of moves in the last two days to add different faces to the mix of guys wearing the birds on the bat in Florida. They first acquired a minor league catcher, Michael Ohlman, from the Orioles. Josh has talked a bit about Ohlman and for right now, all it seems like this deal did was add some catching depth to the organization, something that is always a good thing to have. Not just anyone can be capable with the tools of ignorance on and while Ohlman might not always be a catcher, he is right now and that’s good enough.

That said, there’s potential for Ohlman to do more. He’s had some success in the lower levels of the minors and was rated in the top 10 of the Orioles’ prospects. The question is, did he hit the ceiling of his talent in Double-A or was it just a normal struggle when first moving up a level? He’ll be seeing a lot of time in Springfield and we’ll get a chance to see which answer is correct. If he can do what he’s done at the lower levels, the Cards might have gotten a steal here. At worst, he’s organizational filler they picked up for cash considerations, so there’s really no down side.

The more immediate move, at least for the major league squad, was the Redbirds signing Carlos Villanueva yesterday. Apparently–and I’ll admit, I didn’t see any of this personally–there were folks that were down on this move, which is mindboggling. Is Villanueva a hidden star? No, I doubt that. Will he be the next Pat Neshek? I’m not saying that and it seems unlikely he’ll reach those levels.

Is he exactly the kind of move I expected John Mozeliak to make? Absolutely. A veteran major league arm on a minor league contract. If he’s terrible, you can cut him without significant repercussions. If he’s middling to good, he can go to Memphis and be there if and when a starter (or even someone out of the pen) goes down. If he’s great, then it’s a pleasant problem to have.

We’ve seen many times that the depth of an organization, especially at pitcher, can be key. With Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia all having varying levels of injury concerns and John Lackey being the elder statesman (which comes with its own age-related health issues at times), having a veteran guy like Villanueva keeps you from having to go with Marco Gonzales (if you want to keep him on regular work in Memphis) or Tim Cooney. Sometimes predictability is what you want, even if the upside of the others is much higher.

I think Villanueva has some potential to at least be league-average if not a little above. His ERAs have been awful the last couple of years, but some of his peripherals haven’t been so bad. I’m the last person that should be talking about the advanced stats, but his FIP didn’t look so bad and he does have a K/9 between 7-8, which means he can get the strikeout at times. I still don’t think he gets the gig straight out of camp, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see him at some time this season.

A signing like that should close the door on St. Louis going after James Shields, if that door was ever open in the first place. A few rumors tied them to the free agent and I have no doubt that Mozeliak would scoop him up if the price was right. I mean, if someone is just giving you quality pitching, it’d be rude to turn it down. However, with three or four teams now in the mix, it seems unlikely Shields’s price will drop enough that Mo would rather take him than the winner of the Carlos Martinez/Garcia prizefight.

(It’s still interesting how there’s little talk of Garcia in this whole equation. Derrick Goold tweeted the Cardinals would still rather give Martinez the shot at the fifth man spot. I’m pretty sure that’s the organization’s thinking, but if Garcia comes in healthy and effective, I don’t know how you can’t give it to him given contract, left-handedness, history.)

They also announced the non-roster invitees yesterday, but nothing really stood out to me there. Stephen Piscotty is coming to camp, but we all knew that. There’s no exciting prospect like Wacha or Oscar Taveras this year that we want to get our first look at. That hole in the prospect system is hitting now, but in a couple of years we’ll have a few more interesting folks that we’ll be hoping are on the NRI list.

Spring is coming, folks. I promise!

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This is the big one, folks.  As I wrote about earlier in the week, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Tyler Lyons for the podcast.  The legendary #70 was as gracious as you’d expect from a guy wearing such a great number.  Absolutely a blast to talk to him and I hope you enjoy!

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