The season previews walked into my office like a girl in a red dress: without an official appointment yet somehow late...
It's that time of the year to take a glance around MLB and predict out what role a certain team might play this season, whether that be contender, dark horse, spoiler, also ran, rebuilder or raging tire fire.
I'm going to do something different here than I have in previous
years, as researching anything of interest in regards to bad teams gets tedious after a few hopeless hours (but what are Khris Davis' splits against righties?). So this go-around there's a bit more creative license in regards to these previews. Here goes:
I don't exactly know how of all places, I ended up there. Actually, that's a total lie. Of course I know how. That's why I'm even writing this in the first place.
It was way back in March of 2018, a different time. I was a writer desperate for work, by which I mean desperate for something specifically interesting enough to work on. A bunch of previous leads had dried up before any sunlight even had a chance to shrivel em, a thirsty thought that made me reach for a bottle of wine. But as I popped the cork a phone call came from my nearby desk, the dust fleeing the scene as I watched the vibrations from each ring. Eventually it occurred to me to actually answer the damn thing. A voice, coughing from smoke, told me to meet him at Tommy's Tavern in fifteen minutes.
An hour later I cursed the Transit Travel Commission a thousandth time as I strolled inside Tommy's. The place was unwelcoming, like a stadium after everybody's long gone and all you smell is spilled beer and cheap mustard. A round table of five in the back waved to me and shoved out a extra chair for me to sit in. I sat and a waitress with crooked teeth and a checkered dress dropped a G & T in front of me.
'Nice of ya to make it on short notice, Eephs.' Said the man to my left, whose smokey voice I'd heard on the phone. 'We're familiar with your work.'
'Appreciate it. You know that's not really my name. You can call me--'
'Don't be so hungry!' Said a different man, speaking through a mouth of chicken wings.
'No actual names here. We're all friends, not actual friends, but you know.' Added the familiar voice.
'Sure.' I nodded, sipping the martini. Dry. Not bad. 'So why am I here? What's the racket?'
'Soon, young slowball. Allow me to introduce my associates. To your right is Magic Mel. You'll be dealing with him first.'
A man in an old priest's outfit nodded at me. His tunic was faded, torn around the edges, and it was obvious he'd been re-knitting the loose threads everywhere instead of just finding something else to wear.
'Over there is Northsider. He's busy right now but we'll get him inbetween orders.'
"Northsider" hardly acknowledged the mention of his name as he continued to devour chicken wings.
'Right there is Sandlot. She's a real firecracker.'
Beside Northsider was a youngish woman who smiled at me, though like a predator eying prey. She wore a vest with pockets that had many fuses sticking out of them and I realized the description was literal.
'Right beside me is Ashbury H. We'll introduce ya properly when it's his turn otherwise we'll never get him to shut up. You can call me Mr. Familiar.'
'Swell. What do you need from me?' I asked impatiently.
'Information.' Magic Mel replied. 'And... perspective. You're like us, see. We each have specific knowledge of our specific divisions, and report on them. But this time of year, our clients demand... more.'
'More?' I inquired.
'A complete look.' Mr. Familiar nodded. 'At all of it.'
'At all of what?'
The one they called Northsider reached into his pocket and I gulped with fear. He was trying to pull something out and I readied myself to duck, thinking it could be a gun, but instead it was spherical and he rolled it across the table to me.
'A... baseball?' I asked, palming it with confusion.
'Obviously.' Sandlot snarked. 'Keep up will ya? We don't have all night. Now! The National League West?'
'That's my turf!' Magic Mel grinned. 'And if we start here it should be at the very bottom, which is San Francisco of course.'
Everyone at the table groaned, even the still eating Northsider and the thus far silent Ashbury H. Regardless, Magic Mel went on.
'Fellas, none of you can argue that this was a squad that performed brutally in 2017. Almost losing 100 games! And with now 185 million-plus on the books this summer, over 125 the next two years after that, lord help them! Dark, dark times ahead...'
'C'mon Mel. Ya can't deny they've made some nice acquisitions.' Mr. Familiar piped up. 'They got nothing from third base last year except the 76 games Eduardo Nunez gave them. Evan Longoria, huge improvement, even a 32 year old version. Same with the outfield. McCutchen and Austin Jackson should have a bit more bat and a lot more glove than Jarret Parker or Denard Span did. Throw in a Hunter Pence bounceback and that's potentially a league average offense.'
'Good bullpen too, especially if Melancon doesn't blow up again.' Sandlot added. 'Plus Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija is a solid three that could re-ignite on the league.
Magic Mel bristled and adjusted his shabby collar. 'Sure, they'll be better. As in 72 wins is better than 64! Good enough for the basement! Now, with the Giants in 5th I think we can all agree on the 4th place team?'
We all nodded, even I though still catching up at this point.
'Great!' Magic Mel said cheerfully. 'So lets talk about the Colorado Rockies.'
The enthusiasm at the table quickly died again.
''Fluke team, obviously. Lots of generic starting pitchers having useful years.' Magic Mel continued. 'I mean, in that ballpark? And have any of you heard of German Marquez, or Kyle Freeland? Antonio Senzatela or Jon Gray?'
'Actually...' I interjected, 'Gray was a pretty well known prospect and...'
'Bunch of nobodies! Sure, they'll score a ton of runs playing in that thin mountain air, like they always do. Huge step back though, I decree. Two games under .500.'
'What about them bullpen arms they picked up?' Mr. Familiar proposed. 'Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw... Jake McGee was already there. Late innings should be a strength. Plus Coors Field or not, Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado are legit superstars my man.'
'Arrennedo could winan MVPh.' Northsider agreed while sucking on a drumstick.
'Blackmon is a big free agent lots of people don't talk about this upcoming offseason. What with Harper, Machado, Donaldson, Kershaw and all.' I remarked.
'Sure, sure. But did they pick up anybody to catch those shiny new relief toys?' Magic Mel countered. 'Jonathan Lucroy would've looked good if he came back, but of course they have to pay Ian Desmond all that money to do Ian Desmond things, whatever those are.'
'Yeah that's pretty bad. Fine Mel, ya convinced me ya did.' Mr. Familiar nodded. '4th place team. Now please, for third place, you're definitely gonna say...'
'Arizona Diamondbacks? Damn right.'
'Oh come on!'
The disbelief at the table stunk in the air like a pair of smelly socks blowing in the breeze of a fan, an easy description for this writer to imagine since Northsider was doing that very thing under the table. In spite of sight and scent being brutally against him, Magic Mel went on:
'J.D. Martinez was a lot more important to this team than people think! 29 home runs in 62 games? You can't replace that kind of production and he was a huge part of their late August run.'
'Thanks for reminding me J.D. Martinez now plays for the Red Sox...' I muttered.
'Martinez was great, sure. But I like them bats they brought in to replace him.' Mr. Familiar countered. 'Souza Jr. is a street man's version of JD and Jarrod Dyson creates all sorts of lineup options. Sides, pitching was the real strength of that 2017 gang, and all them guys are back. Grienke, Robbie Ray, Patrick Corbin, Taijuan Walker... they don't even have to care if Shelby Miller ever figures himself out again. Switch out Fernando Rodney for Brad Boxberger and they shouldn't be all that worse.'
'I like Archie Bradley a lot, dudes. As a super reliever he's gonna be a huge weapon. Like a dozen cherry bombs set off in a plugged toilet...'
At this point, Sandlot drifted into that fantasy she proposed and cackled to herself at random moments.
'You're asking a lot of that pitching staff, in that park, and Corbin and Walker have serious injury histories. I'm saying 84 wins. Solid third place.' Declared Magic Mel.
'Whatever ya say, Mel.' Mr. Familiar shrugged. 'So... two teams left and surely... your second place team has to be... come on now...'
Magic Mel considered the question, which was an excuse to sip my martini. Still dry. Still not bad.
'Well brother, a tough call. On paper, these last two teams have much in common... pitcher friendly parks, southern California cities, Adrian Gonzalez played there... but brain over heart here, second place I'm picking the Padres.'
'Oh thank god!' Mr. Familiar exclaimed. 'Shoulda never gone this far.'
'Not sure what you mean by that, but yes I'm picking San Diego for second place in the NL West. And... top wildcard!' Magic Mel announced proudly, adjusting his shabby black priest robes. 'This is a young, young team lads, and it's full of super prospects. Fernando Tatis Jr, Mackenzie Gore, Michel Baez...'
'Them guys are great prospects, Mel. But they're years away. Gore himself is only 18 for martini's sake.'
'You'll see Tatis this year. Guarantee it.' Magic Mel declared. 'In the meanwhile you've got an all-star in Wil Myers, an emerging star in outfielder Jose Pirela... Austin Hedges is primed for a big time breakout, same with Hunter Renfroe...'
'Hedges is more J.P. Arencibia than Buster Posey, Mel.' Mr. Familiar remarked, finishing his drink in a single gulp.'
'What about this Eric Hosmer contract, anyway?' I asked Magic Mel. 'Doesn't it seem, you know... completely ridiculous? Hosmer is still a young dude for a free agent and arguably a good player and all, arguably. But that money... just why? Plus where is Myers gonna play now? He was awful in the outfield before.'
'Myers will be fine in a corner. As for Hosmer, think of it like when the Mets went and got Keith Hernandez.' Magic Mel smiled.
'Seriously.' Mr. Familiar groaned. 'Them Padres remind ya of the 80s Mets.'
'Big time! Hosmer is like Hernandez, a good hitting defensive first base wiz. Tatis will be Howard Johnson, Gore is their Gooden, Feliz their Ron Darling...'
'Is Freddy Galvis their Rafael Santana? Oh wait, I mean is Santana like the rest of the team?'
'Very funny, Mister.' Said Magic Mel. 'Maybe none of you are on board, but I'm a true believer. 94 wins and the top wildcard. Myers, Hosmer and the starting pitching carry the team until Tatis shows up in August and they cruise to the heavens.'
'You're mad.' Mr. Familiar told him. 'Lets bundle this up. Looks like them Dodgers are gonna win this again. But this is team as good as last year? Yu Darvish is gone, Justin Turner is down with a broken wrist for a while. Concerns?'
'Nofh.' Northsider answered through a mouthful of chicken wings. A remarkable accomplishment since I'd hadn't noticed anyone bring him a fresh order.
'Their depth is pretty incredible.' I began. 'Losing Turner hurts but they should be fine. Their offense was very good and underrated last year, and a full season of Bellinger should keep that going. That starting staff still has Kershaw, Hill, Alex Wood, Ryu and Kenta Maeda. Pretty lefty heavy and not quite the depth of last year, but still pretty damn nice.'
'How much does Matt Kemp play? All off season they tried to dump him and couldn't. Is he a big part of this team?' Magic Mel wondered.
'Certain matchups? It's the NL so a power bat off the bench is a useful hammer.' Mr. Familiar theorized. 'They'll want him playing the field as little as possible I figure, but the bat is still good enough to be dangerous. C'mon Mel, how many wins?'
Magic Mel sighed, poked the table and looked up to the ceiling as though for it to forgive him.
'97 wins and the division. But! It'll be a dogfight between them and San Diego until the last week! And a controversial game where Joc Pederson hits a home run clearly foul and...'
'Yeah yeah yeah.' Mr. Familiar interrupted, rubbing his eyes. 'Right lets cut this loose for a bit and come back around in five, boys. Hey Marcy, another round over here!'
MAGIC MEL'S PREDICTIONS
Los Angeles Dodgers -- 97-65
San Diego Padres -- 94-78
Arizona Diamondbacks -- 84-78
Colorado Rockies -- 80-82
San Francisco Giants -- 72-90
(During this discussion I wrote my own notes secretly under the table. Once I'd translated my scribbled handwriting, jumbled even when not writing blindly, I thought best to add them to the tale)
Giants: Some flashy moves but 68 wins to contention is a big jump, relying on a bunch of dudes in their early-mid 30s to bounce back. With good health (always a question with older players) they should be decent, but without anything resembling youth don't think it's enough.
Rockies: You never know how Denver affects your pitching. Some real nice star players. Could go either way, but a third place finish looks like the ceiling in this division.
Diamondbacks: I like em. Good young starters, always been a Patrick Corbin fan. Offense could be worrying and the Yasmany Tomas contract looks like a huge mistake. Should be in the hunt regardless.
Dodgers: Biggest question mark is how young their core hitters are: Bellinger, Taylor, Seager, Barnes, Pederson. Lots of ups and downs and quite possible that Taylor and Barnes aren't as strong this go around. Still obviously the favourite. Is this The Year Of Puig?
Padres: Get real, Mel.
Diamondbacks: 88-74 (2nd WC)
Next time, the food filled tale of the NL Central...