Michael R. Stevens

Baseball Review 2016, Part 2

Auguries and predictions (with an eye to 1983).

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The AL Central has been my milieu for the past two decades, and here the 1983 vibe is heavy, though 2016 has absolutely belonged to the White Sox thus far. Were it not for Jake Arrieta across town, Chris Sale would seem superhuman, and Jose Quintana is off to a great start. Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie, and Adam Eaton are slapping it around, but Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier got off to slow starts—though Frazier just drove in a bushel of runs and may be heating up with the weather. Can 1983 help them? Tony LaRussa was at the helm in those days of yore, with Jim Leyland by his side, in the umpteenth hideous uniform style in a row. The offense was pretty ugly back then too—Carlton Fisk basically led the team in everything, going .289/26/86, with 85 runs—but their pitchers were horses, with Lamar Hoyt going 24-10, and Dotson and Bannister combining for 38 more wins and 450 more innings to match Hoyt's 260. Pitching then and pitching now—a solid combination. But is there a single lowering cloud in the sky? Greg 'Bull' Luzinski as Opening Day DH in '83 … hmmmm. The Tigers are muddling along, three games below .500 and seven behind the Sox. Even upbeat and unparalleled radio play-by-play man Dan Dickerson, whose voice in my car or kitchen is part of our familial summer fabric, has let slip tattered phrases of despair on the performance of Mike Pelfrey, the off-season acquisition to shore up the rotation. But the arrival of Jordan Zimmerman from the Nationals has been revelatory, as he has been superb, balancing out the inconsistency of Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. In an odd twist of fate, Miguel Cabrera has struggled with sliders and strikeouts and making good contact, while 3B Nick Castellanos, who used to flail at sliders, has become Cabrera-like. (Will the foul ball my son retrieved from the bat of the 18-year-old Castellanos during his season here with the Low A West Michigan Whitecaps someday be a cog in our family financial plan?!) Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler are both experiencing veteran rejuvenation at the plate, and a glance back at 1983, the year before their World Championship, shows a Tigers team ready to bolster from the past. Whitaker and Trammell, purveyors of a million DP's together over the years, finished third and fourth in the batting race, at .320 and .319, while Lance Parrish and Larry Herndon provided some pop (Herndon was a strong .302/20/92 that year). Entering his peak moment, Jack Morris was 20-13, struck out 232, and shouldered a hair under 300 innings—a horse. But I have a concern, and his name is John Wockenfuss, DH on Opening Day of '83. Even if the 2016 bullpen stays strong, this blow from the past might be enough to take down the Tigers. I hope not, but I worry. Strangely, I'm not worried about Kansas City, World Champs but for the moment a mediocre team with pitching problems and, other than Eric Hosmer, sketchiness at the plate. Still, maybe I should worry. The 1983 factor, the 'ya gotta believe redux' factor in Kansas City, suggests that the ship will right itself. Willie Mays Aikens, Frank White, U.L. Washington, and George Brett—a solid infield, with Brett going .310/25/93, even with the pine tar HR stripped away, while the DH factor was strong, with Hal McRae hitting .311. The Royals will rise again. The Cleveland Indians will not rise, though they should—that rotation, with Carrasco, Kluber, and Salazar, is formidable, and the young DP combination of Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis can flat our field and flat out hit. But '83 revises me (to misquote Li Young-Lee)—Ron Hassey, Bake McBride, Manny Trillo—I'm not feeling it. Wait, Julio Franco opened the season at shortstop—isn't he still playing somewhere?! I like Rick Sutcliffe as the ace, but he ended up peaking for the Cubs. Toss in the DH factor, and you get a strong Christian force in MLB ranks in Andre Thornton—but is his big swing and high K total enough to carry the 2016 team. Not quite. The Twins are in deep, deep trouble, 17 games under .500 after an abysmal start. And no wonder—Kirby Puckett. The sparkplug of their '87 and '91 title runs had not yet been called up on Opening Day, and though several of the champion cogs were in place—Hrbek, Gaetti, Brunansky—the fact that Randy Bush was the starting DH bodes ill. Maybe Byron Buxton will get called back up to fulfill the destiny set for him as the next Puckett—but right now he's on a minor league bus, and the Twins will continue to struggle.

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