By Elizabeth Finn
Last week, I highlighted a few of the pleasant surprises that this baseball season has revealed to us as it steamrolls into October. Always entertaining and frequently inspiring, the previously-examined eye-openers are only a fragment of what makes baseball so enjoyable.
The flipside to these stories of unexpected achievement, however, are instances of unfortunate failure. Unless appealing to your sense of schadenfreude or directly benefiting your team’s chances to make the postseason, these figurative face plants are sources of anticlimactic mediocrity at best. Still, they are as much a part of baseball as a Cinderella story, and I would be remiss to exclude them (and all their cringe-worthy glory).
The Oakland Athletics
What happened to the team that was this spring training’s trendy wild card pick? With an offense that was supposed to have been bolstered by offseason bargain Orlando Cabrera, former Rockie Matt Holliday, and the Bay Area homecoming of Jason Giambi, who was coming off a very solid contract year, Oakland’s hitting corps was expected to light a spark under a young but promising rotation. Following Billy Beane’s favorite formula of short-contract home run kings with high on-base averages supporting low-risk high-tier pitching prospects, the 2009 crew harkened back to Oakland’s successful run in the early 00s and caught the eye—theoretically—of many looking to find a good playoff contender to challenge the East.
The result was…well…not exactly what Beane and the A’s were hoping for. The offense that was supposed to provide run support sputtered; Giambi’s average, not usually an asset anyway, plummeted to depths unheard of for a former MVP. Indeed, at one point in the season, he had the lowest average in all of baseball. He added merely three home runs. Eventually injured, he found himself unceremoniously released from the team in the first week of August. As for Cabrera, his batting average floated around respectability (.280) but the shortstop sported only a .683 OPS (proving once again that BA is by no means the whole statistical story) before being traded to the Twins hours short of the deadline. As for Holliday, he started the season slowly but began to heat up at the end of June. By that time, however, the A’s had slipped out of contention and they traded their star high to the Cardinals just after the break.
Meanwhile, the young pitching, though still promising, was inconsistent and a product of inexperience. Entering the 2009 season, their projected rotation had an average age of under 23. Typically, none have taken charge of the staff, and though three have started at least 20 games, only one of Oakland’s pitchers has notched double-digit wins. With a few exceptions, none of the starters’ ERAs are atrocious, but none have thrown enough innings to give the team any stability. Only Dallas Braden, who has emerged as the best of Beane’s young arms, has started at least 20 games with an average of at least 6.0 innings per game.
Besides Braden, Oakland does have hope for the future. Closer Andrew Bailey has emerged as one of the best in the league. Picked as Oakland’s lone representative in the 2009 All-Star game, the rookie has 25 saves and is averaging over a strikeout/IP. Also having a nice year is CF Rajai Davis, who has added 40 steals to his career-high .811 OPS.
There has been discussion that Beane may need to alter his franchise-building formula, as his “moneyball” strategy has made other general managers wise. Time will tell if he allows young players to mature in the system and flourish on a long-term basis with the team. If he can parlay young standouts like Braden and Bailey into franchise cornerstones, the A’s will compete sooner rather than later—for real this time.
Ebbs and flows are natural in baseball. Sometimes they occur within a season and sometimes within a career. The truly consistent are incredibly rare. But knowing this doesn’t make an apparent fall from grace any less jarring. For the closer of the reigning world champions, perfect just last season, even a small misstep would have been noteworthy (though understandable). So Brad Lidge’s sudden and inexplicable inability to convert saves has been a crisis of near-epic proportions in Philadelphia.
In 2008, Lidge was the backbone of a very talented Phillies team. He converted all 41 of his save opportunities, struck out 2.63 batters for every walk he allowed, and posted a 1.95 ERA. His WHIP of 1.22 was a bit high for a closer, but for all the heart palpitations he induced, the all-star led his team to its second franchise championship.
Because of Lidge’s perfection, an expectation of continued consistency and clutch pitching followed him into the current season. Instead, Lidge responded by blowing 13 of his first 19 saves before being placed on the DL with knee problems, which were cited as the cause of his struggles. Unfortunately, fortunes did not improve for Lidge when he returned, and he has gone to on to give up four additional leads. His ERA sits at a bloated 7.21, his WHIP has ballooned to 1.807, and opponents have a .911 OPS against him. Beyond simply regressing to the mean after his spectacular 2008 campaign, Lidge has become a liability.
Though manager Charlie Manuel has expressed his confidence in his former sure thing, Ryan Madson has taken over some of the closing duties, with mixed results. “Lidge is our closer,” Manuel told The Daily Journal, in response to continued skepticism. “You’ve definitely got to show confidence in him.” While the faith is admirable, Lidge’s numbers are startlingly worrisome, made even worse by the fact that he’s the only real option on a club heading to the postseason.
Lidge’s 2009 story is not yet complete, and he may be able to turn the tide in time for the Phillies to play deep into October. Though the team is capable of winning in many ways, they need their closer to be Mr. Perfect once again if they have any shot of repeating.
New York Mets
I almost don’t feel right including the hapless luckless team from Queens in a list of 2009’s biggest disappointments, but they can’t really be considered anything else. I wasn’t around to witness the 1962 team, but I can’t imagine it could have been worse than this mountain of potential and promise that has devolved into a pile of…well…
The 2009 Mets were a pre-season favorite to win the pennant after their acquisition of single-season saves record-holder Francisco Rodriguez and former Mariners’ closer J.J. Putz. The bullpen, which had been a glaring weakness the year before, appeared to be solidified, and the Mets looked poised to open their new stadium with some new hardware.
But what the Mets neglected to focus on were the glaring insufficiencies entering the season. Their biggest question mark was undoubtedly the rotation. Beyond Johan Santana, the Mets were a hodgepodge of mostly-unproven starters looking to prove themselves. They had allowed Derek Lowe, the highly coveted righty who had led the Dodgers to the postseason, to go to division rival Atlanta, in favor of the arguably less talented but also much less expensive Oliver Perez.
The Amazins were also faced with a lack of depth, particularly at shortstop. Though Jose Reyes was a more than competent starter, they were lacking an acceptable day-to-day replacement. They had a similar problem with the rest of their backups—not many solid everyday players. Surely they wouldn’t need to use all their backups every day though, right?
The injuries began piling up almost immediately and multiplying, keeping the Mets from being able to field their Opening Day lineup all season. By the end of June, Reyes, Putz, Perez, CF Carlos Beltran, 1B Carlos Delgado, SP John Maine, and closer Billy Wagner had all missed significant time and several, like Reyes and Delgado, were projected to miss the entire season. Still, they had David Wright and Johan Santana, and with some serviceable replacements, managed to enter the second half at only three games under .500.
Then the replacements, unaccustomed to the rigors of everyday play, were the casualties. Fernando Martinez, the Mets highly-touted infield prospect, faces surgery. Jonathan Niese, who pitched well in the absence of Perez, may even miss the beginning of next season with an ankle injury. The unfortunate series of events has now taken a toll on the Mets’ future. Even OF Jeff Francoeur, whom the Mets acquired from the Braves for the much-maligned Ryan Church, tore ligaments in his thumb in late August. With third-string backups filling in and OF Daniel Murphy playing his first-ever games at first base for the duration, the Mets have fallen to 21-40 since the break and are in the position of simply trying to finish the season without another injury.
Oh, and as a postscript? Johan Santana, for whom the Mets drained their farm system, will undergo elbow surgery, ending his season.
Blame is already being placed on trainers and coaches for insufficient rehab and diagnostics. Understandably, when this much goes wrong in a season, culpability is at a premium. Most likely, the Mets won’t be able to piece together 2010’s undoubtedly new-look team until they have a better awareness of where their many injuries leave them. Until then, their shiny new stadium will see a dark October, and the team that had blinded itself to its own weaknesses will have to wait another year.