Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Review 2016, Part 2
The NL Central did not exist in 1983, but all its teams did, and the Cubs were rising then as now. This is an example of a double whammy—Leon Durham, Ryne Sandberg, the productive bat of Bill Buckner (pre-trauma), the productive glove of Larry Bowa, Jody Davis behind the plate—wait, was this a super-productive lineup? Well, 2016 is, featuring not only Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and Javier Baez but also newly acquired Ben Zobrist, not to mention role-players like Tommy La Stella (credit Joe Maddon for getting reps for everyone on the roster). Jake Arrieta has reached Bob Gibson's stratosphere: the no-hit stuff, the 6-0 record, the outlandish ERA, the supreme confidence. Despite questions about 1983 (an aging Fergie Jenkins was the opening day starter), and dark memories of 1984, the Cubs will be a factor to the very end. Meantime, the Pirates hover, hoping the Cubs will slow down.Their star Andrew McCutcheon not yet heated up, but other guys are wielding hot bats, and they have a lot of young pitching, led by Gerrit Cole and Juan Nicasio. There is much to like here (watch out for former Tiger lefty Kyle Lobstein working out of the bullpen), but a glance at the '83 Opening Day lineup sends a shiver, as this was clearly an interregnum between Willie Stargell's 'We are Family,' and the early '90's Barry Bonds-led teams. I see corner infielders Jason Thompson and Dale Berra at an underwhelming glance, and Lee Mazzilli in center doesn't change the prognosis for 2016: third place, hovering at 83 wins. Right now the Cardinals are only above .500 by a tick, but that means nothing—this team rises from the ashes on a regular basis to play in the World Series, and though the personnel changes, the ethos does not. By the way, could we have another Smokey Joe Wood or Rick Ankiel on our hands with Adam Wainwright? If his surgically repaired arm doesn't hold, the upper-deck mammoth shot he hit a couple of weeks ago indicates he could move into a power-hitter role and platoon in right. This team has other sources of pop, and with young guns like Michael Wacha complementing Wainwright, why the sluggish start? Weren't the '83 Cardinals a force to be reckoned with, defending World Champs? George Hendrick, twenty years ahead of his time in wearing his baseball pants all the way down to the shoe-top, was a force that year, going .318/18/97, with the hirsute Ken Oberkfell and the crazy-legged Willie McGee both hitting at a decent clip and scoring runs ahead of him. So where does the bad vibe come from? Aha! I note that the Opening Day first baseman was the non-pareil field general Keith Hernandez, and that the mustachioed one hit .297 with 42 extra base hits—but he was traded to the Mets mid-season, and took his mighty presence away. I think that will haunt the St. Louisians one last time this year—they'll fade in late September. The Brewers were in the AL back in '83 and had just played in their only World Series ever. Were I using the 1982 season as a measuring stick, this might all be different, but they're already more than 10 games back, and though Ryan Braun has returned to form, hitting .380 with seven HR's, and formidable first baseman Chris Carter is enjoying a power surge, there is a bit of anemia, a sagging will in Milwaukee, that will make for an arduous summer. The Cincinnati Reds have lost a considerable slugger in Todd Frazier (more on this later), and starting pitching is as tempestuous as Tim Melville's surname, but it's really the '83 lineup to blame—what was Johnny Bench doing at third base, and what hope springs from Ray Oester starting at second? Sure, Mario Soto went 17-13 with a 2.70 ERA (one shudders at the lack of run-support), but he also gave up 28 home runs. The last puffs of the Big Red Machine, causing the 2016 edition of the team to stall as well.
The NL West is wrapped in mediocrity this season (or competitive parity, perhaps?); at the moment, everyone in the division is at or below the .500 mark. The Dodgers seem the team to beat, with Clayton Kershaw off to another outlandlishly good season, complemented by Kenta Maeda. Is there a 1983 connection to boost this rotation into the post-season? Through the fog I see a connection emerging, an erstwhile but not insignificant nostalgia—the Dodgers current pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt, won the American League ERA crown in '83, junkballing his way to a 14-8 record with a 2.42 ERA (on only 56 strikeouts in 175 innings!)—that stalwart of bad Mariners and Rangers teams will now help the Dodgers compete for the NL West crown. Should we bring up Steve Sax? No, let's move on to San Francisco, where the Giants are neck-and-neck with their arch-rivals. Their rotation looks like an A-list of potentiality—the Series veteran Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jake Peavy, Jeff Samardzija—but they've struggled, and no wonder. The Opening Day starter in '83 was Dave Krukow—enough said. But wait, Atlee Hammaker won the NL ERA crown that year with a strong 2.25! Yet he finished 10-9, dogged by an inconsistent offense (though Jeffrey Leonard was fearsome and Darrell Evans serviceable). This year, Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, and Angel Pagan have all been cooking, but somehow Johnny LeMaster as starting shortstop in '83 gives me pause. It won't be the Giants 'every other year' World Series title this year. I want to think it could be the Rockies year, because of the outrageous fun of the Trevor Story arrival, as accidental starting shortstop, with 6 HR's in his first four games. There's a lot more to like on the mile-high team, starting with Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez, and the Rockies have a fine young arm in Tyler Chatwood. Still, with no 1983 back story to go on, I'm worried about the long-term chances. Manager Walt Weiss came a bit too late to bolster the 1983 creds—I think the Rockies fade to 90 losses. The Diamondbacks are also plagued by a lack of history—batting instructors Mark Grace and Dave Magadan don't quite reach back to 1983—but also by a lack of production from their stars thus far. Zach Greinke, nearly unhittable last year, gave up two of Trevor Story's early HR's in the desert, and has struggled since. All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is well below his usual level of performance, which is dangerous. Maybe a .500 season, but not much more, I'd say. The Padres are struggling at five games below .500, but they're fresh off a day/night doubleheader sweep of the Cubs (the first time the Cubs have lost two consecutive games this season). On the mound, Drew Pomeranz is a bright spot, and there's plenty of theoretical punch in the lineup. Can 1983 help? If it were 1984, a World Series year for the Padres, I'd have hope, but '83 was still centered around Gary Templeton's glove and bat at SS (think Ozzie Smith trade … ), and though catcher Terry Kennedy came up with a respectable .284/17/98 for the squad, and Dave Dravecky battled to 14-10, I'm not feeling a strong gravitational pull for this year's team—the will finish in the cellar.