Welcome to the first installment of Just a Bit Outside, a weekly baseball column here on thefan1060.com. Expect insight, analysis, along with plenty of snark from myself from everything in Major League Baseball to college baseball. This week, I take a look at the biggest headlines in the Cactus League this spring.
DBacks Begin NL West Defense
The Arizona Diamondbacks to the league by surprise last season. Many, including myself, thought the team was still a year or two away from bursting onto the scene and into playoff contention.
General Manager Kevin Towers and Manager Kirk Gibson had other ideas.
The DBacks won 94 games, beating the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants for the NL West crown. Arizona played a thrilling NLDS against the Milwaukee Brewers, but fell short in the fifth game of the series, leaving a bitter taste on what most consider a successful season.
“What we did last year was good,” Gibson said on Day 1 of Spring Training. “Obviously, it wasn’t good enough. We have to get better.”
Towers made moves in the offseason in hope to make the Diamondbacks better. He traded highly-touted prospect to Oakland for Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow, signed a power bat in left-fielder Jason Kubel added depth to the bullpen by signing veteran right hander Takashi Saito.
Still, there are some questions surrounding this team. Will Miguel Montero and Ryan Roberts produce similar numbers or face a decline? Will David Hernandez and J.J. Putz repeat their amazing 2011 numbers? But what will ultimately determine the DBacks success or failure in 2012 will be shortstop Stephen Drew.
Drew was lost for the 2011 season after fracturing his right ankle, requiring surgery. The Diamondbacks cannot go a full 162-game season with Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald at short. Good news, Drew is progress quickly.
“The healing is coming along,” Drew said. “I'm pretty excited about that. There was a time when I would do things like that I would have to shut it down for three or four days.”
However, Gibson remains cautious.
“He moving very well, but he’s far from being able to play in a game,” Gibson said. “I think we were half-worried that he would be really hobbled.”
The Diamondbacks play in actually games on March 3rd, two split-squad contests against the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies.
Ryan Braun’s Redemption
On Thursday, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun found out his 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance had been overturn.
Braun tested positive in October, but the story did not leak until December, which created a firestorm. Ridiculous rumors circulated for weeks (one included herpes) for the reasons why Braun’s test would have been three times higher than the normal level of testosterone.
Major League Baseball released a statement last night, disagreeing with the ruling and trying to pass it off as a technicality.
“It has always been Major League Baseball’s position that no matter who tests positive, we will exhaust all avenues in pursuit of the appropriate discipline. We have been true to that position in every instance, because baseball fans deserve nothing less,” MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred said. “As a part of our drug testing program, the commissioner’s office and the players’ association agreed to a neutral third party review for instances that are under dispute. While we have always respected that process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today by arbitrator Shyam Das.”
Friday morning, Braun went on the defensive.
“If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally, I’d be the first one to step up and say, I did it,” Braun said from the Brewers spring home in Maryvale. “By no means am I perfect. But if I’ve ever made any mistakes in my life, I’ve taken responsibility for my actions. I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point.”
Braun detailed how he was tested on October 1st, hours before the Brewers opened the NLDS against the Diamondbacks. Braun’s urine sample was not shipped to until October 3rd because the urine sample collector thought FedEx was closed on Saturdays (cannot make this stuff up).
“I don’t honestly know what happened to it during that 44-hour period,” Braun said
MLB insists the test were not tampered with, claiming Braun, his attorneys and the player’s union successfully attacked the integrity of the procedure.
For now, the Brewers can enter spring with the optimism. Having Braun back for a full season makes Milwaukee a contender for an NL pennant. Their starting rotation is one of the best in baseball and their offensive production will not drop off as dramatically as people think. Sure, Aramis Ramirez won’t put up Prince Fielder-like numbers, but he is still capable of a 25 home run, 80 RBI season.
The ruling was a major victory for Braun, but fair or not, this cloud will follow him forever. The stigma of testing positive will never vanish. Just listen to the crowds when the Brewers are on the road this season.
Albert Pujols Arrives in Tempe
For the first time in his storied career, Albert Pujols will begin his season in Arizona. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim stunned the baseball world, signing the MVP slugger to a 10-year $240 million deal.
All winter long talk about Pujols included the St. Louis Cardinals, the team he bolted, or the Chicago Cubs, a team that was more focused on rebuilding. But the Angels didn’t enter the equation until hours before a deal was announced. Owner Arte Moreno called it a “monumental day” for his franchise. No kidding.
For years, the Angels came up short in free agency, flirting with CC Sabathia, Mark Texieria and Carl Crawford to name a few. Suddenly the team spent $330 million on one day on Pujols and CJ Wilson (5 years, $77 million).
The Pujols effect is already being felt in the Valley. Several billboards across the I-10 proudly feature the newest Angel. Tickets to Angels games all over the Valley are quickly being snatch up. But will Pujols in Anaheim, spring will be the only chance for Valley baseball fans to catch a climpse of the future Hall-of-Famer. You know, unless the Diamondbacks see him in October.
A Yu Era in Surprise
With the Angels making a statement, the defending American League Champion Texas Rangers needed to make a response. Enter Yu Darvish.
Texas won negotiating rights with Darvish back in December, bidding $51.7 million just to talk to the Japanese sensation. Nearly a month later, the Rangers signed Darvish to a 6-year $60 million deal.
Baseball fans might be having flashbacks to Ichiro Suzuki’s first spring with the Seattle Mariners. Throngs of Japanese media members have already descended on the Rangers spring facilities in Surprise, and will only intensify when Darvish starts in games this March.
Darvish will help off-set the loss of Wilson to the rival Angels. Plus, Neftaili Feliz will move out of the bullpen and into the Rangers starting rotation. Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando will fill out the final three spots in the rotation. Combine the pitching depth with the Rangers offense and Texas remains the favorite in the AL West.
Next week’s column: Previewing the 2012 season, beginning with the NL and AL West