Twin City Thunder: Is Joe Mauer the Best Player in Baseball?

The Man. The Myth. The Sideburns.

The Man. The Myth. The Sideburns.

Joe Mauer is as American as apple pie. He wins over the ladies with his matinee idol looks and the men with his talented play. He hits well, runs well, throws well and plays exceptional defense at a premium position. He’s got sideburns that would make Joe Dirt Elvis blush and fittingly  he stars for his hometown team, the Minnesota Twins. Oh yeah, and he just discovered his power stroke, begging the question: is Joe Mauer the best player in baseball?

Since being recalled from the disabled list on May 2, Mauer has been hotter than Roy Hobbes after he got back with Glenn Close in The Natural (yes the same Glenn Close who cameoed as a pirate in Hook; say what you will about Roy’s choice in women, but the man sure could hit a baseball). In just 25 games and 87 at-bats, Mauer has hit at a ridiculous .425 clip, to go along with 11 HRs, 32 RBIs and 26 runs. Eleven longballs in one month is a lot for anyone not named Sammy Sosa, let alone someone who only smacked 9 HRs in all of 2008.

It’s no secret to the league that Joe Mauer can hit (.322 career BA), but he’s mainly been a doubles and singles guy in his first 5 years in the league. Now that he has begun to flex his muscles, pitchers are grappling to find any weakness in Mashin’ Mauer’s game. His career high in homeruns (13) is already in sight, a year (2006) in which he went deep once every 40 ABs. This season Mauer is sending a ball into the bleachers every 7.6 ABs; that’s Barry Bonds circa 2001 territory. Besides providing fans with ample souvenirs thus far, he is also establishing himself as one of baseball’s elite players.

Joltin' Joe Mauer is the best player in baseball right now.

Joltin' Joe Mauer is the best player in baseball right now.

Joltin’ Joe has always been viewed as one of the rising stars of the game, an abnormally large and athletic catcher who could handle a pitching staff (2008 Gold Glove) and make solid contact at the dish (2006 and 2008 AL batting champ). He also flashed good speed for a backstop (28 SBs between 2005-07) and a keen batting eye (career 309/246 walk-to-strikeout ratio). Even though he is entering his sixth year in the league, Mauer is still just 26-years-old, and it appears that his continued maturation as a hitter has allowed him to discover which pitches to drive and how to make pitchers pay for leaving balls out over the plate.

Extrapolated over the rest of the season his current stat-line suggests that Mauer is on pace for 61 HRs and 178 RBIs. While he probably won’t finish with those otherworldly numbers, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he finishes with 30+ bombs to go along with his usual .300 BA. This new facet of Mauer’s game should put him the same breathe as Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera. Yes, he’s that good. In fact, if this recent power surge is for real (and there is every reason to believe it is), Joe Mauer may just be the best player in game, hands down. Offensively, defensively–you name it, Mauer is firing on all cylinders at a time when the sport desperately needs a face lift.

Baseball’s savior has arrived…and his name is Joe Mauer.

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R.I.P. Dontrelle Willis: You Will Be Missed, But Not Forgotten

The brightest stars always burn out the fastest. Goodbye Dontrelle, you will always live on in our hearts.

The brightest stars always burn out the fastest. Goodbye Dontrelle, you will always live on in our hearts.

Just to clear things up, Dontrelle Willis is not actually dead (although some fantasy owners from last year may wish that upon him), but his career as a starting pitcher in the major leagues did pass away last night at the tender age of seven (2003-2009). Willis’ starting pitching career is survived by his teammates, coaches and those who invested a fortune in his rookie cards. Services will be held at the rest of Willis’ starts in the major leagues, minor leagues and old-men’s softball games. The family has requested that there be no flowers, but instead simply ask that fans don’t boo Dontrelle and further damage his fragile psyche; he may no longer be a starting pitcher, but he’s still a human being afterall.

Dontrelle the starting pitcher was born on May 9, 2003 to the Florida Marlins. His first year was a season that no one would ever forget as the phenom jumped from Double-A to the majors and never looked back (until of course now, that is). The young southpaw burst onto the scene and electrified the baseball world with his big smile, herky-jerky motion and passion for the game. His meteoric rise was added by the fact that every announcer and radio personality (Don Imus was credited as the first to coin the phrase) could finally say “whatcu talkin’ bout Willis” without getting a call from Gary Coleman’s lawyer. Dontrelle would go on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award after posting a 14-6 record and 3.31 ERA. The dream season culminated with a World Series title, as the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in six games. The burgeoning star was truly the crown prince of baseball and the world had become his oyster (which should have raised some red flags at the time because of Willis’ shellfish allergy).

Although he struggled the next season (10-11, 4.42 ERA), Dontrelle bounced back in a big way in 2005, finishing 2nd in the Cy Young voting to Chris Carpenter and going 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA and 170 Ks. He was selected to the All-Star game for the second time that year and even hit .261-1-11 at the plate. The boy had officially become a man, and Willis looked poised to become the black Fernando Valenzuela next poor-man’s Sandy Koufax. But even the best laid plans of mice and men go awry.

Things began to unravel in 2006 as Dontrelle struggled with control (of the ball and his emotions) leading to an underwhelming 12-12 record and 3.87 ERA. The league had finally figured out Willis, and the suddenly old starting pitcher knew that his best was already behind him. But there was no quit in Dontrelle and although he realized his days were numbered, he fought on valiantly. Unfortunately, Willis managed just 10 wins in 2006, and his ERA skyrocketed to 5.17. Dontrelle was aging faster than that guy in Indiana Jones who drank out of the wrong grail, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Dontrelle the starting pitcher, seen here throwing one of his last pitches, was only seven.

Dontrelle the starting pitcher, seen here throwing one of his last pitches, was only seven-years-old.

The Florida Marlins, desperate to see their golden child succeed, shipped him off to Detroit along with Miguel Cabrera in hopes that a change of scenery might reignite his career. But things went from bad to worse in the Motor City for the fading star; Willis struggled with injuries, walked twice as many batters as he struck out, and posted a 9.38 ERA in 2008. Dontrelle started this year on the DL due to what was being called an “anxiety disorder“, but everyone knew it was merely a cover up. Willis was dying, and quickly.

Dontrelle made his final start last night against the Minnesota Twins, and scouts say he passed away peacefully after allowing a 2-R HR to Justin Morneau. He went 4 2/3 innings, giving up 8 hits, 4 Rs and 0 Ks. Although Dontrelle seemed upbeat after the game, the final nails had been hammered into the coffin of his career as a starting pitcher. Willis was seven-years-old.

But let’s not remember Willis as the decrepit pitcher of the past few years, a man who had a more trouble time finding the strike-zone than Angelina Jolie does finding a baby she won’t adopt. Instead, let’s think back to young Dontrelle’s days on the mound in sunny Florida, kicking that leg up to the sky and mowing hitters down like very few ever could. Willis was a once in a lifetime talent personality and we should be thankful for every moment he graced us with; baseball could sure use more players like Dontrelle (not that fans don’t love the Paul O’Neills and Gary Sheffields of the world)  His time on this earth was far too short, but he did more with it than most could ever dream of.

Dontrelle Wayne Willis may be gone, but he will live on forever in our hearts and minds. Goodbye sweet Dontrelle, we hardly knew thee…

Something’s Cooking in KC: Are the Royals More Than Smoke and Mirrors?

When Sidney Ponson is part of your rotation, the good times can't last for long.

When Sidney Ponson is part of your rotation the good times can't last for long.

Unheralded coming into the season by most baseball pundits, the Kansas City Royals have roared out of the gate to post an 18-14 record and grab an early lead in the AL Central. Can a team whose key offseason acquisitions included Willy Bloomquist and Sidney Ponson really compete for a shot in the playoffs? Survey says….NO. Here’s why:

Kansas City’s pitching has been lights out so far, posting a 3.49 ERA as a team. Led by Zack Grienke (who owns 1/3 of the team’s wins himself) the Royals have been shutting down opponents on a nightly basis, helping to make up for some sub-par showings from the offense. However, after Grienke, the only other reliable starter for KC is Gil Meche (shocker, another ex-Mariner who discovered his talent once he left Seattle). The rest of the rotation is made up of has-beens (Brian Bannister), never-weres (Kyle Davies), and the majors only native Aruban (Sidney Ponson). Although Bannister has been solid so far, his low strikeout and high walk total signal impeding armageddon…or at least a significant rise in ERA. Ponson (5.91 ERA) and Davies (5.22 ERA) have been terrible in the early going, and there is no reason to believe that will change anytime soon. Grienke has been phenomenal thus far, but expecting him to continue pitching at his current rate is completely unrealistic. Once he returns to earth, the Royals will be in a world of hurt.

Will Alberto Callaspo hit .340 all season? Probably not.

Will Alberto Callaspo hit .340 all season? Probably not.

Kansas City’s offense has been able to escape scrutiny the first month and a half of the season (the team is second to last in the AL in runs scored) because of a dominating pitching staff. However, the lineup has some serious holes and only the surprising Alberto Callaspo (.340 BA) and resurgent Mark Teahan (.302-4 HR-13 RBI) have kept the team afloat. The offense is significantly lacking in power outside of Jose Guillen and Mike Jacobs, who is on pace for an Adam Dunn-esque 170 Ks. First baseman Billy “the Backside” Butler will hit for average, but a corner infielder who only slugs 15 HRs doesn’t really put the fear of God in many opposing pitchers (outside of Carlos Silva) and leaves the Royals as a station-to-station squad. Last season’s leadoff man David Dejesus is struggling with back issues which have lead to his .224 BA and 0 SBs. Coco Crisp and Willy Bloomquist are the only players with any speed in the lineup, and when you’re counting on key plays from those two, it goes without saying that it’ll be a long season. The Royals have an underwhelming lineup and once the pitching fades, and it will, the offense won’t be able to supply enough firepower for very many wins. Is Barry Bonds still available?

While the Cleveland Indians have likely already played themselves out of the postseason the rest of the teams in the AL Central are all capable of capturing the division title. Minnesota’s young pitchers have struggled but if they can put things together, they have more than enough talent to overtake the Royals. The White Sox have been inconsistent early on but a potent offense and fiery manager Ozzie Guillen should keep them in the hunt all season long. The greatest threat to KC in the early going, the Detroit Tigers, have shaken off the disappointment from last year and with Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson anchoring the lineup as well as a revitalized Justin Verlander toeing the rubber, will probably be the favorite to take the division from here on out.

So enjoy this magical run while it lasts Kansas City fans; it won’t be long before the rest of the league discovers that this hot start is nothing more than an illusion, and your beloved Royals return to mediocrity.

Manny being Manny? Ramirez suspended 50 games for violation of MLB’s drug policy.

Ramirez's suspension will cost him 50 games and nearly $8 million.

Ramirez's suspension will cost him 50 games and nearly $8 million.

It appears that Alex Rodriguez’s confession in March was only the tip of the iceberg. When news broke early this morning that Manny Ramirez had violated MLB’s drug policy, two questions came to mind: Was he simply ignorant about what he was putting into his body? Or did he actually have the audacity to try and circumvent the rules and still use steroids even after the A-Rod debacle?

The reports that went out today indicated that Ramirez tested positive for a women’s fertility drug, which caused an increased level of testosterone in his body, leading to a positive drug test and the resulting 50-game suspension. Ramirez claimed that the positive test was triggered by a medication that he recently received from a physician for an unspecified medical condition. However, the drug hCG has been linked to other players such as Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, and is commonly used by body builders to restart testosterone production following a steroid cycle. Ramirez has not yet explained why he was taking hCG and does not plan to appeal the suspension.

This shocking revelation couldn’t have come at a worse time for baseball, with teams already struggling to sell tickets in a down economy and A-Rod set to return to the field for the first time since he admitted to Peter Gammons that he took steroids. Ramirez, despite his numerous shortcomings, is one of the most popular players in the game and was seemingly above the cloud of suspicion surrounding baseball’s best hitters over the past decade. Manny is 17th on the all-time HR list with 533, and fans had hoped that he would be able to pass tainted sluggers like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But in today’s society, it doesn’t take long for the players once praised to become the target of jeers and insults.

Besides the long-term effects to his reputation, Ramirez’s suspension will clearly hurt the Dodgers (who will be without his services until July 3rd) as well as his teammates from the Indians, Red Sox and Dodgers who will all be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism moving forward. Does Ramirez’s suspension mean that his former bash brothers Jim Thome and David Ortiz took steroids? No, but it certainly doesn’t help their case, or that of any player from this current era. Fans, still reeling from the A-Rod scandal and continued allegations, will find it more and more difficult to believe that any player is truly clean. The titans of the game continue to fall at an alarming rate; how long until another hero falls from his pedestal and how long will fans continue to support this kind of hypocrisy?

The Dodgers may still make the playoffs, but the chances of Manny entering the HOF took a serious hit.

The Dodgers may still make the playoffs, but the chances of Manny entering the HOF took a serious hit.

The Dodgers had raced out to a MLB best 21-8 (including 13 in a row at home) thanks to stellar pitching and the steady bat of Ramirez, who was batting .348 with 6 HRs and 20 RBIs. The team will now be without its best hitter for nearly one-third of the season, and Ramirez will be forced to return about $7.5 of the $25 million he was set to make this season. Baseball Prospectus indicates that Ramirez’s abscence will cost the Dodgers about 3 games, which still puts them on pace for 95 wins, tops in the NL.

The Dodgers will probably still make the playoffs and Manny will still probably put up big numbers throughout the remainder of his contract. But what happens when Ramirez becomes a free agent? Will any team be willing to gamble on a poor fielder and teammate who tested positive for a substance linked to steroids? And what about when Manny retires? A sure fire Hall-of-Famer and one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time, Ramirez will likely join other convicted cheaters like Bonds, Palmeiro and A-Rod on the outside looking in to Cooperstown.

It’s a sad day for baseball. The once sunny and free-spirited Manny Ramirez will be covered in a dark cloud for the rest of his career. The red-hot Dodgers will be without their best hitter for 50 games. And most tragically, fans will once again lose a hero of the game, as another of their idols falls from grace into the bleak oblivion that is the Steroids Era.

Are there brighter days ahead for America’s past-time? I’m not so sure anymore…

Ain’t No Sunshine: What’s Wrong With the Tampa Bay Rays?

Who are you and what have you done with BJ Upton?

Who are you and what have you done with BJ Upton?

Carl Crawford just tied the major league record with 6 stolen bases. Matt Garza narrowly missed a no-hitter last week. Carlos Pena leads the majors with 11 HRs. Evan Longoria is on pace for 200 RBIs and light hitting shortstop Jason Bartlett already has three times as many HRs as last season (3). Yet despite all that has gone right for them so far, the Rays still find themselves mired at the bottom of the AL East, trailing surprising Toronto by 7 games.

The darlings of last season went all the way to the 2008 World Series and were expected to do the same this year with continued growth from young pitchers and the addition of powerful bats like Pat Burrell and Matt Joyce. But a month into the season, Tampa Bay has seemingly regressed to it’s 1998-2007 futility with a woeful 12-16 record that has them in the cellar of the division along with the perennial afterthought Baltimore Orioles. So what exactly is going on?

Most of the team’s struggles stem from the young pitching staff that carried the Rays last season. Instead of building on 2008’s success, the majority of the pitching staff has spent the early going taking a major step backwards (4.64 team ERA). Tampa Bays’ starting pitching is putting undue pressure on the bullpen because of their inability to go deep into games; Scott Kazmir is 3-3 with a 6.00 ERA, Andy Sonnastine is 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA and Jeff Niemann is 2-3 with a 5.68 ERA. The bullpen has not been up to the challenge either; Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler are both sporting 7.00 ERAs, with J.P. Howell and Troy Percival as the only reliable relievers thus far. Matt Garza and James Shields have been solid so far but unless the rest of the staff starts pitching up to their potential, the Rays have a long summer ahead of them.

Kazmir has looked more lost than Lindsay Lohan at a dry party in the early going.

Kazmir has looked more lost than Lindsay Lohan at a dry party in the early going.

While there are certainly bright spots on the offensive side of the ball, many key players from last season’s lineup are struggling mightily. Leadoff man BJ Upton tore the cover off the ball last October and was expected to carry that success into 2009. However, the first month of the season has been a nightmare for him, batting .152 with 0 HRs and 2 RBIs. Catcher Dioner Navarro hit .295 last year, but so far is only hitting at a .160 clip with 1 HR and 3 RBIs. Pat “The Bat” Burrell was expected to add some punch to the lineup but only has one HR (the same number as perennial long-ball threat Willy Bloomquist) in 83 ABs. The Rays’ winning  last season was predicated upon a lineup that was solid 1-9, but this hasn’t been the case for Tampa Bay in 2009.

Can the Rays turn things around, or is their season already over? After the sensational run by the 2007 Rockies it is hard to ever count a team out of the playoff picture, but Tampa Bay sure has its work cut out for it. They have suffered from some bad luck in the early going, having a losing record despite a positive run differential. Additionally, the track records of players like Kazmir, Burrell and Upton indicate that they are due to a return to form, but will it be too late when they finally put things together? After all, only 10 of the 160 playoff teams since 1982 finished April more than 3 games under .500, and only 28 of the 132 teams that finished first during that same span were more than 2 1/2 games out after the first month (Stark, Jayson. ESPN.com. May 5). So can the Rays get back in the playoff hunt? Sure, but history indicates that they probably won’t. Hey, at least the weather is nice in Florida!