Wild Card Dreams

Thursday, January 02 2003 @ 11:36 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

Not much Toronto baseball news out there today, but I stumbled across this report from Seattle. (What kind of a name is Post-Intelligencer for a newspaper?)

Sounds like certified genius GM Pat Gillick's hands are tied. When the owners didn't allow him to do anything but add Jose Awfulman at the 2002 deadline, it was a white flag on the season, and the furious Lou Piniella decided right then to leave. Now we're told the accountants gave permission to wave $7 MM under the nose of a Cuban defector, but that money can't be used to acquire another FA pitcher, because it came from a different pocket.

So all the M's have accomplished is to get Randy Winn (who had a breakout/fluke season at 28, depending on your point of view) as compensation for the skipper jumping overboard, and re-signing two old guys -- Jamie Moyer and John Olerud, who assure us these are their final contracts.

Sean, and other left coast readers, correct me if I'm wrong. There's still some young talent in Seattle -- Joel Piniero looks terrific -- but a couple of key people (Freddy Garcia and Ichiro) declined last year from superb to very good, and they have a lot of money sunk into the aging Bret Boone and whoever that is impersonating Jeff Cirillo. Top prospects Chris Snelling (injury) and Rafael Soriano (rude MLB awakening) didn't enhance their status last season, and fantasy stud Mike Cameron (175 K) has a hole in his bat. I think it's more likely that the ancient Mariners regress to 90 wins or less in 2003 than improve to their former 100+ capability.

The Red Sox, frustrated by the Yankees at every turn, aren't done dealing. If they replace John Burkett with Bartolo Colon, they have a great batting order and an excellent rotation. But as I've said elsewhere, that bullpen is just waiting to implode. There's no doubt that Bill James' principles have influenced the decision to replace Ugie Urbina with a committee, and there's no doubt that the sabrmetric approach to "closer" management is better than conventional "wisdom." You should have your ace reliever out there in the eighth inning, sometimes the seventh and eighth, in close games. Anyone can hold a three-run lead in the ninth. Problem is in Boston, there's no ace. Lefty Alan Embree misses every other year with an injury, Bob Howry is just hanging on, Ramiro Mendoza has plenty of wear and tear on his arm, Chad Fox is an even bigger health risk, and Mike Timlin is, well, Mike Timlin. They could drag this team down from the previous 93-win level.

Obviously, last year's wild card (and World Series) winner is virtually unchanged. They're shopping for a lefty DH to replace Brad Fullmer, hardly a scarce commodity, and the capable Eric Owens takes over as fourth OF. If the pitching holds together -- namely, Aaron Sele and Kevin Appier -- then whoever doesn't win the West (Angels or A's) will probably still make the playoffs. Oakland has the three great starters, the fabulous left side of the infield, and now Ruby's bat, so I think they are less likely to decline than Anaheim. If 2002 turns out to have been a miraculous Disney script, or just a little complacency creeps in, there's a possibility that the AL wild card race will be wide open.

That means a team with an established ace pitcher, a slugging superstar and a ton of emerging young talent could be a surprise contender. One that had a fantastic finish to bring their 2002 record up to respectability. Yes, I'm talking about the Chicago White Sox. No, the Coach hasn't gone completely senile. (If I'm going to use those arguments to make a case for the Blue Jays, it's hard to ignore their mirror image.) Mark Buehrle is joined by some big, strong youngsters like Jon Garland and Danny Wright, who will continue to improve. Magglio Ordonez has to be the most underrated great player in the bigs, and Paul Konerko is also overlooked. Even the Big Pain bounced back in September (1.134 OPS) and kids like Joe Borchard and Joe Crede are ready for prime time.

The IQ of my almost-namesake Kenny Williams still hovers at about room temperature, with the A/C on, but the ChiSox play in a very soft division (a third of their games are vs. Cleveland, Detroit and K.C.) and I'll guarantee they will improve on their .500 record. Depending on which club's rookies and sophomores perform the best, they might join the Blue Jays on the fringes of an interesting 2003 playoff race.