Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 30, 2014

Winners And Losers, Now And Then

The baseball season officially began more than a week ago, when the Dodgers and Diamondbacks took the field at the Sydney Cricket Ground. But for fans of the other 28 teams, as well those L.A. and Arizona faithful who didn’t get up in the middle of the night to watch the Australian opener, this is the weekend when another Spring Training comes to a close and the Great Game begins anew. The Dodgers reboot their season and put their perfect 2-0 record on the line Sunday night in San Diego. Twenty-six other franchises begin play on Monday, and finally the Yankees and Astros become the last two teams to start the 2014 season Tuesday evening in Houston.

The final days of Spring Training bring a rush of familiar activity. Each team must get down to the 25-man roster limit, so field managers and GMs engage in the complicated calculus of personnel management. Final decisions on who gets to pack for the charter flight to Opening Day and who has to haul their duffel bag across the street to the minor league training complex can hinge on many different factors; from how many arms are thought to be needed in the bullpen to the need to temporarily replace a starter who will begin the season on the disabled list to whether a utility man’s options status allows him to be sent down without clearing waivers. Sometimes the last roster spot can even be based on performance in Spring Training, giving sudden import to those supposedly meaningless games played under the late winter sun.

That was the case at the Yankees training site in Tampa, where the choice for the final boarding pass on the plane to Houston came down to two backup infielders, Eduardo Nunez or Yangervis Solarte. The 26-year old Nunez came up through the Yankees system, and played parts of the last four years in the Bronx. He was originally touted as the likely successor to Derek Jeter at shortstop, but through the end of last season his major league batting average was just .267, some forty-five points lower than Jeter’s career .312. Of greater concern has been his inability to improve in the field, where his fielding percentage is an anemic .940 and his fielding runs above average metric a woeful -26. Still the affable player teammates call Nuni has been a favorite in the clubhouse. Given that and his time with the team, Nunez seemed likely to win a spot on the roster.

That was until Solarte came along. The Venezuelan native has never played a big league game and was released by the Rangers organization after last season. He arrived in Tampa as a non-roster invitee, a baseball term meaning he had basically no status. But with nothing to lose the 26-year old batted .429 in Spring Training. His 18 hits led the Yankees and his 9 RBIs tied him for the team lead. The Grapefruit League games may have meant nothing in the standings, but in the end they meant the world to Solarte, who sometime in the next several days will enter his first major league game wearing a New York Yankees uniform. The other side of Solarte’s undisguised joy is the bitter disappointment doubtless felt by Nunez. The one-time heir apparent to the Yankees captain will start the season in AAA, his future no longer certain.

The final roster decisions are about fringe players, and so tend to gather little notice. But in the end they are vastly more important than another familiar rite of Spring Training’s final days, a ritual to which great attention is always paid. Every year at this time scribes and media outlets release their predictions for the coming season. It is a bit of springtime silliness, because of all the things that can and do happen during a 162-game schedule played out over three seasons on the calendar. That wild uncertainty is part of the Great Game’s appeal, but it neither stops the predictions from being made nor diminishes the spotlight cast upon them. So joining in the fun, here are On Sports and Life’s predictions for the new season.

These are not based on any studied analysis of player or team statistics. They are the predictions of a fan, and fans are by definition biased. As long-time readers know, I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., rooting for the local nine. While my first Senators now play in Minnesota and their expansion successors call Texas home, I still have strong attachments to the nation’s capital and so follow the Nationals. Of course growing up both sets of Senators were uniformly awful; so to avoid constant despair I developed my lifelong loyalty to the Yankees. But while the Nats are a popular pick, even I can’t predict a World Series that includes New York. While they should be better than last year, for all the money the Yankees spent this offseason little of it went toward making an old team any younger. So in place of New York I’ll go with the always heartwarming story of success by a low-budget team.

The only analysis I did was to survey the predictions of the New York Times, the Sporting News, six writers for Sports Illustrated, the Bleacher Report website, and Bill Miller’s always excellent blog, The On Deck Circle ( I should note that since they are so often wrong, few if any of the professional prognosticators will revisit their calls; but you can bet that Bill will have a post next fall tallying up his hits and misses.  My survey revealed that all ten sets of predictions forecast a National League team winning the 2014 World Series. Given the historical accuracy of these calls, victory by the American League representative is certain.

On July 15th at Target Field the American League All-Stars will defeat their National League opponents 7-4 in 11 innings. The game’s result gives home field advantage in the World Series to the AL representative. None of the three Nationals nor two Rays named to the team will be in either lineup when a three run homer ends the extra inning game.

The Rays will languish through the first half of the season. But in a move reminiscent of last year’s group beard-growing by the Red Sox, Tampa Bay will gel as a team when the players start to wear copies of manager Joe Maddon’s hideously ugly eyeglasses. With the entire team eventually wearing “when I grow up I want to be a nerd” black frames, “Fear the spectacles!” will become a mantra heard in every AL park as the Rays storm through the second half and clinch a Wild Card spot on the regular season’s final day.

Meanwhile the Nats will spend the season fending off a team no one saw coming. Because the one absolute certainty of every baseball season is that there will be at least one utterly unexpected contender. This year that team will be the Mets, thanks to the incredible medical miracle of Matt Harvey returning to a big league mound in late June, just eight months after Tommy John surgery. Harvey and Zack Wheeler will dominate on the mound; while newly acquired center fielder Curtis Granderson will smash the single-season strikeout record by fanning 300 times, but will also hit 50 home runs. The improbable Mets will edge the Nationals for the division title, but Washington will make the postseason as a Wild Card.

When the playoff dust settles the last two teams standing will be the Rays and the Nationals, only the second all Wild Card World Series ever. The Fall Classic will go the full seven games, with the home team winning every one. Thus the outcome of a July exhibition in which no one from either World Series squad played a role will be decisive in October.

With the Rays leading 3-1 in the top of the 9th in Game Seven, Eduardo Nunez, whom Tampa Bay acquired from New York as the player to be named later in a minor midseason trade, will commit a pair of throwing errors, allowing the Nats to tie the game. But in the bottom of the frame the goat will become a hero when Nunez strokes a game winning RBI double into the gap in left center field. Congratulations Tampa Bay!

Is that how the new season will unfold? Highly unlikely, though at least as far as the identities of the two World Series teams, my predictions are no more improbable than anyone else’s. So if by chance there winds up being a parade on the Florida Gulf Coast next November 1st, remember you read it here first. In the meantime, with the two games down in Sydney in the books, there are just 2,428 more to sort things out. The longest season begins. Play ball!

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