Archive for March, 2010

My NL East predictions

Posted: March 31, 2010 in Odds and Sods

I was just reading one of the blogs on my blogroll, The Real Dirty Mets Blog, and the many writers of that great site made their NL East picks. I’ve been stewing over mine for a bit, and can’t quite share the same optimism most of the guys over there seem to have. As long as everyone stays healthy (never a given in Metland), the Mets should have one of the best lineups in the NL East, right up there with the Phillies. But the pitching…oh the pitching. So without further adieu, here are the predictions:

1. Philadelphia Phillies (94-68): As much as I hate to admit it, pencil the Phillies in for a fourth straight division title. This team is capable of winning 100-plus games, but I’m not so sure about their bullpen. Brad Lidge was awful last year (following a magnificent 2008) and starts the year banged up, leaving the closer’s role to Ryan Madson, who excels as a set-up man but seems to struggle in the ninth. The shaky pen will cost them a few wins, but the rest of the team is pretty stacked. Their lineup gets better with Placido Polanco replacing out-machine Pedro Feliz at third base, and they’ve still got one of the best offensive cores in the league with the likes of Rollins, Utley, Howard and Werth. The Phillies’ pitching staff receives a boost with the addition of Roy Halladay, but I still feel the team could have made this trade and held on to Cliff Lee as well, which would have set up a super top 3 of Halladay, Lee and Hamels. But they didn’t, and it won’t kill them. Joe Blanton is a solid innings-eater and a solid eater, period, judged by his portly frame. J.A. Happ emerged last season, and 800-year old Jamie Moyer occupies the fifth spot, for now. Questionable bullpen notwithstanding, the Phillies remain the cream of the crop in the NL East.

2. Atlanta Braves (90-72): Although Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels are a strong 1-2 punch for the Phillies, the Braves have perhaps the deepest starting rotation in the division. Tim Hudson returned from Tommy John surgery last year, and is back to full strength in 2010. Young Tommy Hanson has all the makings of a Cy Young candidate for years to come, while Jair Jurrjens had an outstanding year in 2009. Derek Lowe had a down year last year, but still is a 200-inning horse, and Kenshin Kawakami quietly posted a solid year. Losing Javier Vazquez will hurt, but the Braves’ bullpen is decent, so long as Billy Wagner’s arm doesn’t fall off (no guarantee coming off major elbow surgery and with his advancing age). The Braves’ lineup has a few holes, but I expect huge things from rookie Jason Hayward. This kid is going to be a star for years to come. Outstanding approach at the plate and light-tower power. Chipper Jones is coming off his worst season, yet for some reason, I think he’s got at least one more big year left in him. Brian McCann is as good a hitting catcher as anybody not named Joe Mauer, and shortstop Yunel Escobar has a world of talent he’s just tapping into. Their lineup isn’t quite as deep as the Phillies or perhaps even the Mets or Marlins, but their pitching should carry them a long way. And if Heyward busts out in a big way, they’ll score enough to contend for a playoff spot.

3. New York Mets (83-79):The Mets fell off a cliff last year, dropping to 70 wins after at least contending for the playoffs each of the previous three years. The steep dropoff can be attributed to injuries, as Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado all missed at least half the season. Even the durable David Wright couldn’t escape the endless pile of injuries, as he was hit in the head by a Matt Cain fastball and missed a couple weeks. And the injuries didn’t stop with the hitters, several pitchers also went down. Oliver Perez, who was awful before his knee injury anyway, had surgery on his knee. Johan Santana was having another strong year before an elbow injury sidelined him in August. Oft-injured John Maine experienced more shoulder woes and missed a good chunk of the season. You get the picture, there were a lot of injuries. Most everyone is healthy (Beltran will be back in May and Delgado is gone), but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to contend for the division title again. The reason? Pitching of course. The Mets have way too many unknowns in both the rotation and the bullpen. So many things have to break right for them to win 90-95 games. Can Mike Pelfrey, Maine and Perez all contribute 30 starts and win 10-15 games? Who is going to set up closer Francisco Rodriguez? Outside of lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano, the Mets’ pen has a lot of unproven guys, from Japanese imports Ryota Igarashi and Hisanora Takahashi to injury-plagued Kiko Calero and Kelvim Escobar to journeyman Nelson Figueroa, it’s just too much of a crapshoot at this point. Free-agent slugger Jason Bay will provide a nice boost to the offense, and the Mets should score a lot of runs. Just don’t see them preventing enough runs from scoring.

4. Florida Marlins (81-81):
You can make an argument to flip the Marlins and Mets around, but I like the Mets’ starting lineup a little better, and the Marlins’ pen has just as many question marks as the Mets’. One thing you’ve always got to hand the Marlins, they do more with less than perhaps anyone in professional sports. While their payroll is either the lowest or close to the lowest in the majors, the Fish always seem to put a competitive team out there. This year should be no different. They’ve got one of the best all-around players in the game in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a few really talented young starting pitchers in Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Volstad, a talented minor-league system which always seems to provide the squad with contributors like Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan, and a players’ manager in Fredi Gonzalez. The Marlins’ bullpen is always a patchwork operation, and I’m not buying Leo Nunez as a closer. Still, the Fish will be competitive, just not a playoff team.

5. Washington Nationals (66-96):
The Nats will occupy their now customary position of last-place in the NL East, but they’ll avoid the 100-loss embarassments of the last two seasons. More than that, they’ve actually got quite a bit of hope for the future, with super-prospect (and last year’s No. 1 draft pick) Stephen Strasburg waiting in the wings, where he’ll one day be the ace of the staff. The Nats also had the 10th pick in the draft last year, taking reliever Drew Storen, who is also close to making an impact in the majors. Add that with the fact they’ll again have the No. 1 pick this year (where much hyped hitting prospect Bryce Harper awaits), the Nats might be a contender in a few years. Just not this year, although the outstanding Ryan Zimmerman and all-or-nothing slugger Adam Dunn at least make them somewhat watchable.

OK, time to vent a little bit. As a diehard Mets fan, I’m starting to get a sinking feeling about the season before it even starts. Guess that’s part of the territory with being a fan of the Metropolitans, but believe it or not, I had supreme confidence in this team heading into each of the last three seasons (we all know what happened there).
I don’t know if it’s just Metlag, but I think we could be in for another horrendous year. Maybe not as bad as last year’s injury-filled 70-win clunker, but maybe a 75-87 wretchfest.
Just about every Met starter is putting up putrid April stats. Even Johan Santana hasn’t looked all that great (although I’m not worried about him in the least). The guy I’m concerned about the most is actually Mike Pelfrey.
I’ve always thought this kid was going to develop into an ace or at the very least a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter. He had the big pitcher’s body, the mid to upper 90s heater with big-time sinking action, and a decent yet underused assortment of secondary pitches.
Pelf says he’s tinkering with his secondary pitches this spring, throwing his four-seam fastball more than his two-seamer (the one with all the movement) and toying with a splitter. The offspeed stuff is actually looking pretty good, but he might want to ditch his flat four-seam fastball, because it’s getting launched all over the yard. I don’t know the numbers, but Pelfrey has allowed close to 10 homers this spring. Today against the Cardinals, he was pounded for six runs on 12 hits in an ugly 5 2/3 inning stint. If I could see just one strong outing from him, I’d feel much better. Even the game I saw him pitch in Fort Myers, he wasn’t smooth although he limited the damage (1 run, 5 hits in 4 innings).
I worry about him mainly because he’s the only pitcher outside of Johan that has a legitimate shot at throwing 200 innings. And with the bullpen looking like a who’s who of shittiness (outside of K-Rod and Feliciano, oh please don’t let Mejia on the team, Jerry and Omar you morons), the starters need to pitch quality innings. John Maine is always hurt and even when he’s in there, his fastball gets fouled back a million times, leaving him a 5-6 inning pitcher. Ollie Perez is about as reliable as a weather forecast, and Jon Niese is unproven (making him quite promising, actually).
I was feeling pretty positive until I started really thinking about this pitching staff. In the bullpen, the Mets gave Ryota Igarishi a guaranteed MLB contract, and he looks awful. Kiko Calero is coming off a nice year in Florida, but has constant shoulder woes. Mejia should be a AA starter (no word if he’s coming north or not). Fernando Nieve has a good fastball but little MLB success. Guys like Pat Misch and Nelson Figueroa are AAAA pitchers; Sean Green is terrible against lefties and wild against everyone; Bobby Parnell has a great fastball but can’t locate it; oh, the list goes on and on. If the Mets can miraculously get strong performances out of Pelfrey, Maine and Perez, they can make a run at the Wild Card. If not, another long year. At least, the Mets’ farm system looks much better and guys like Ike Davis, Fernando Martinez and Mejia aren’t far away. Maybe even by the middle of this year if the Mets are struggling. Anyway, I’m going to enjoy the last week of spring training and try to maintain a positive outlook. Just don’t feel very confident about this staff, and pitching is the name of the game….

“Odds and ends, odds and ends, lost time is not found again” – Bob Dylan and the Band, The Basement Tapes

Some random thoughts and observations….
If I had to choose one album I couldn’t live without, one I could literally listen to every day if I had to, it would be The Beatles’ White Album, no doubt.
For one, it’s a double album of the Beatles, which alone is worth the price of admission. The Beatles are the greatest band of all time, hands down, and I’ve loved them seemingly since joining the Earth in 1975. I remember as a little kid, my parents bought my brothers and I kids’ records (back before the CD era of course). You know, ABCs, 123s, Smurf Singalongs, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But I always demanded Beatles albums, even as a 2-year old. That’s what I wanted.
But I digress, it’s hard to pick a favorite Beatles album (like picking a favorite kid) but if I had to, The White Album is the one I’d choose. The Beatles were coming out of the Summer of Love, the psychedelic period, after recording their studio masterpiece Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and the ill-fated (yet wonderful musically) Magical Mystery Tour film project looking for a new direction, also searching for the meaning of it all.
They embarked on a trip to India in early 1968 for some transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and while they were there, they wrote over 30 songs, most of which would land on their next album. Because they had so much material, they decided to make the new record a double album, and it was also their first album release for their self-owned Apple Records (the failing of that company was a big factor in their breakup less than two years later).
On the self-titled album, which they presented in a plain white sleeve with only a faded gray type of “the beatles” included, the band spanned the musical globe, flirting with reggae on “Obladi Oblada”, heavy metal on “Helter Skelter,” blues on “Yer Blues” beautiful pop rockers like “Dear Prudence”, the countrified “Don’t Pass Me By” and a far-out sound collage/avant garde piece in “Revolution 9.” Some complain the record is a bit disjointed and doesn’t have the flow of other Beatles’ records like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, but I think it flows just fine. While I appreciate the pop masterpiece of Sgt. Pepper, it’s a bit too much of a studio record. The band and George Martin recorded take after take for that one, overdubbing orchestras and other effects throughout. Drummer Ringo Starr has often said he didn’t enjoy the recording of that record, because there was often times not much to do while all the overdubs were being laid on. He also said the White Album was where they became a band again (even though they were often bickering by this point). And most of the tunes on the White Album could be played live quite easily, which couldn’t be said of most of the tunes on Pepper and the previous masterpiece Revolver (my second favorite Beatles album). The White Album is clearly my desert island album, my go-to record in the clutch if you will. If you’re not a fan of the Beatles (how dare you) but like good rock music, try The White Album. You may form a new opinion.

NFL comes up with new overtime rule: The NFL did what I thought should have been done a long time ago – they altered the way overtime is played, at least in the postseason. The old rule was a strict sudden-death OT – first team to score wins. However, most of the time (well over half, by the stats) the team that won the coin toss won the game, most times on the first possession. It seemed you could get a good kickoff return (or a kick goes out of bounds for a penalty), put a couple first downs together, kick a field goal and get out of there. Not any more. The new rule has a few twists: you can still win the coin toss and win the game without the other team getting the ball, but you’ve got to score a touchdown to do it. If the receiving team in OT kicks a field goal, the opponent gets a possession to at least match the field goal. If the opponent scores a touchdown, the game is over. If they score a field goal, it’s tied and we go back to the previous sudden-death rule. I like it. I think it’s a bit more fair, especially in the playoffs (although I think they should expand it to the regular season to be consistent). If you’ve made it to the playoffs and battle to a tie after regulation of a playoff game, your fate shouldn’t be determined by “heads” or “tails.”

Rolling Stones to release deluxe edition of Exile: I recently found out that the Rolling Stones are about to release an expanded edition of their 1972 masterpiece Exile on Main Street and I couldn’t be happier.
Exile capped a four-year streak of brilliance for the band, one they’ve never repeated (although subsequent releases have still been good). Those years included the classic albums Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers as well as brilliant non-album singles like Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Women.
Exile just might be the best of all, a double album (single cd though) with a taste of blues, country and gospel all included. Even more exciting, the album will be presented in pristine quality and include 11 bonus tracks. These unheard gems include alternate versions of album cuts like “Soul Survivor” and “Loving Cup,” and songs I’ve never heard of before like “Plundered My Soul,” “Dancing in the Light,” “Pass the Wine,” and “Following the River.” Ultimate score for Stones and classic rock fans everywhere.

Reyes to return; Mets fans rejoice

Posted: March 23, 2010 in Mets

Finally, some good news on the injury/illness front for the Mets. Jose Reyes has been cleared to play. His thyroid levels are back to normal and he’ll be able to resume baseball activities tomorrow. Even better, it appears he’ll be ready for opening day. Let’s go Mets!

It’s amazing Jimi Hendrix produced so much music in a very brief period of time. Forty years after his oh so untimely death, new albums are still being released. OK, so many of these posthumous releases are somewhat repetitive, but at least the music is in the proper hands to do these releases justice. A few years ago, the Hendrix family acquired the rights to his music, resulting in tasteful packages that would make the master proud.
Janie Hendrix, the legendary guitarist’s stepsister, said there’s enough material for a decade worth of releases, and if they approach the quality of the most recent album, Valleys of Neptune, which came out earlier this month, I’ll be on board.
Hendrix put out just three studio albums in his lifetime (all re-released in pristine sound quality the day “Valleys” came out), with the last one, Electric Ladyland coming out in late 1968, almost a full two years before his death.
However, Hendrix was constantly recording in the final two years of his life, mapping out which direction he wanted to go next. He broke up his power trio, The Experience, (the final days of that band are documented on nine of the 12 songs on this album) in April 1969, eventually teaming up with Buddy Guy in the Band of Gypsys and recording a bevy of blues numbers in this time.
He also was working nonstop on his next studio album, which never saw the light of day because he passed away before he could release it. He had two albums worth of material, much of it haphazardly released over the following decade in inferior packages such as The Cry of Love, Crash Landing and War Heroes.
This was finally taken care of in 1997, when Experience Hendrix put out the wonderful First Rays of the New Rising Sun which is reportedly what Hendrix wanted to call his fourth album.
But I’m getting off track here (easy to do when talking about a true legend). The music on Valleys of Neptune provides a snapshot into everything Jimi did best. There are re-recordings of some of his earliest work, which he felt was rush-released and needed tweaking. New versions of “Stone Free,” “Fire,” and “Red House” are every bit as good as the originals, and in some ways better. (He takes out the cheesy “move over Rover” line in “Fire”, for instance). There are blistering blues originals like “Hear My Train A’ Comin” and “Crying Blue Rain”. A few songs are clearly skeletal versions of more popular tunes. “Lullaby for the Summer” is an instrumental based on the kick-ass riff that would become “Ezy Rider,” one of his finest latter-day tracks. And “Ships Passing in the Night” contains elements of the later tune “Night Bird Flying.”
Also included on the album are a pair of wonderful covers. Jimi takes the Experience through a version of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart”. He even tells the band “I’m gonna do this just like Elmore James” in the intro of the song. Hendrix also leads the band through a blazing instrumental version of Cream’s signature song, “Sunshine of Your Love.”
But perhaps the best thing on the album is one of the rarest tunes, a song available only to the shrewdest of bootleggers, “Valleys of Neptune.”
For a song I’d never heard of, I didn’t expect a ton. But it’s a great tune, with fully realized spacey lyrics about a far-away land and of course, the always present mesmerizing guitar work.
For Hendrix fanatics, the album is a must. And for those who have never heard the master, it’s a decent place to start (although any of his four studio albums are still better). More than anything, it proves that even when Hendrix was messing around in the studio, he produced better music than most people on their best days.

The Sod review: ****

Other releases by Jimi Hendrix in my collection
Are You Experienced (1967) *****
Axis: Bold as Love (1968) *****
Electric Ladyland (1968) *****
Band of Gypsys (1970) **** 1/2
First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1997) **** 1/2
Live at the Isle of Wight (2002) *** 1/2

Mets fall to Cards late

Posted: March 20, 2010 in Mets

The Mets just lost their exhibition game to the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, 6-5.
Ruben Gotay blasted a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth (walk-off is so overused and a creation of ESPN) off former Cardinal Kiko Calero, offsetting a big three-run rally by the Mets in the top half of the ninth. New York scored three times off St. Louis reliever Jason Motte, with prospect Ike Davis blasting a game-tying homer. He’s now hitting .500 this spring with three homers, while Daniel Murphy and Mike Jacobs languish under the Mendoza line. Davis won’t and probably shouldn’t make the roster, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up this season if he produces in AAA. He’s a good-looking young player, one of many the Mets have in camp this year (how refreshing is that?)
John Maine started this one, allowing two runs on four hits in four innings of work, walking none and striking out one. He surrendered a two-run homer to Colby Rasmus in the first, then settled down the rest of the way. Only saw the box score, so I don’t know how he looked. Mets drop to 10-8 in the meaningless games, with a pair of split-squad contests Sunday.

Ollie OK, Mets beat Fish 5-2

Posted: March 18, 2010 in Mets

The Mets defeated the Marlins in Jupiter tonight, 5-2. Oliver Perez didn’t look that great, but he minimized the damage in his four-inning stint. He allowed two runs on six hits with a walk and two strikeouts. The Mets’ pen (Ryota Igarashi, Francisco Rodriguez, Pedro Feliciano and Hisanori Takahashi) finished the job, with Takahashi especially looking good in his 2 1/3-inning stint. He hasn’t allowed a run this spring and deserves a shot at the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Offensively, Jeff Francouer and Jason Bay each hit two-run homers, while red-hot Fernando Martinez added a pinch-hit RBI single. Mets improve to 10-6 this spring.