Every year in baseball there is something that happens that we never would have predicted prior to the games being played. Of course, your buddy will call and tell you he saw it coming since December, but here we are in late September and your jaw is still drooping open because you figured some of the early aberrations wouldn’t become trends and yet somehow they inexplicable did. In a year in which a player high-fived a fan in the stands while making a play on a fly-ball there were bound to be some big surprises. And like Manny, let’s jump right into it.
10. Our first surprise was so astonishing that many people have almost forgotten it was a surprise at all. The Seattle Mariners’ descent was so quick and quiet that it slipped by many of us. Sure, they weren’t expected to beat out the Angels for the division, but they were still supposed to be in the race and be chasing a wild card. We’re talking about a team that went 88-74 last season and added Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva. Silva and Bedard should have headed up a previously weak rotation that couldn’t get anything out of its fourth and fifth spots.
In 2007 the Mariners often ran out Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez, who combined to start 47 games and posted ERAs of 6.20 and 7.16, respectively. How could the addition of Silva and Bedard not improve the one major weakness of a division and wild card contender? Instead, Bedard spent most of the season on the DL and only started 15 games. Silva, on the other hand, has been a downgrade in comparison to Weaver; so far he’s posted an ERA of 6.41. He wasn’t supposed to be an ace, but Silva was at least expected to post an ERA below 4.50 and provide some depth behind Felix Hernandez and Bedard.
Additionally, drop-offs from some of their key players aided the fall. DH Jose Vidro failed to find his stroke in 2008, batting .234/.274/.338 after posting numbers of .314/.380/.394 last season. Closer JJ Putz blew almost as many saves as he converted, going 13-21 in save opportunities thus far. He also hit the DL three times and is not the same pitcher who posted a 1.38 ERA and saved 40 games for the Mariners last year. Looking back at the expectations coming into the season, these Seattle Mariners were certainly a disappointing surprise.
9. For another team expected to be a contender, pitching became their downfall as well. During the spring, the Braves were a chic pick by some—including big-name analysts such as Jayson Starks—to win the World Series in 2008. Instead, their pitching staff was decimated by injuries. They lost John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Tim Hudson, Rafael Soriano, Peter Moylan, and Manny Acosta to season-ending injuries.
Oddly enough, the Braves’ faltering may not be the biggest surprise for them in ’08. Out of the Atlanta Braves opening day starting rotation of John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, Jair Jurrjens, and Mike Hampton; Mike Hampton and Jair Jurrjens are the only two still pitching in September. Sure John Smoltz and Tom Glavine are older than the whole Rays’ roster combined, but prior to 2008 Glavine had never made a trip to DL in his career, and Smoltz managed to pitch through extreme pain in his shoulder for the past six years without ever missing any extended time.
Glavine made up for lost time by going on the 15-day DL three times before the Braves mercifully moved him to the 60-day DL in late August. As for Smoltz, he was pretty much done in April, but tried everything to come back, including moving to a bullpen. His season finally ended in early June after a single relief appearance and only five starts. Then Tim Hudson, a guy who in his career has made only three trips to the 15-day DL for minor injuries, became the fifth Braves pitcher in the past three years to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Left standing were Mike Hampton, who until this season hadn’t pitched in a major league game since he “gutted” out 12 starts in his injury-plagued 2005 season, and Jair Jurrjens, a rookie who battled several other candidates in spring training for the fifth spot in the rotation. Who’d have thought this one up prior to the season? Even your best annoying sports buddy won’t lay claim to predicting this one.
8. Speaking of pitching anomalies, how about Cliff Lee? The 30-year-old came out of nowhere to pitch light outs as he currently boasts a microscopic 2.41 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Lee showed flashes of brilliance back in 2005, but in terms of comparison, this year has been a season-long fireworks display for him. Lee threw more than 216 innings, four complete games, and two shut outs. Among starting pitchers he leads the league in wins, is second in ERA, fourth in innings pitched, third in quality starts, third in K/BB ratio, and third in WHIP. The only thing missing is the AL Cy Young award. Oh, and maybe a trip to the post season.
7. This next ’08 surprise came in the form of what didn’t happen. The all-time home-run king, Barry Bonds, never got a single contract offer from any team in baseball. I’d like to think I had a little something to do with this, because I’ve spent many nights toiling with my Wicca voodoo doll kit. Thank you Council of American Witches for effectively conjuring up the correct recipe of voodoo kit supplies back in April of ’94!
Yes, Barry is facing a trial on several counts of perjury. Yes, he’s 44-years-old and couldn’t catch a fly ball if it came straight to him. But either way, we’re still talking about the all-time leader in home runs, asterisk or not, and a guy who has posted unbelievable career numbers of .298/.444/.607 and hit .276/.480/.565 last year. When has character ever stopped teams from going after talent? The Steinbrenners sold their collective soul to the devil a long time ago and don’t even know there is such a thing as a payroll, but even they wouldn’t sign Barry. The league looked into collusion and found none. Well, Barry, when the league is in on it, they’ll never find any. Best of luck next year!
6. Moving from one big slugger to the next, we come to Ryan Howard. Although I’m a Braves fan, I swear I left the voodoo kit at home on this one. So far this season Howard has struggled to reach the league averages of a .263 batting average and a .333 on-base percentage. His numbers currently sit at .248 and .337, respectively. While the 2006 NL MVP’s batting average took a dip in 2007, his OBP still remained an impeccable .392. It’s safe to say almost no one saw this drop-off coming.
As a side note, Howard’s season could become an even bigger surprise if he somehow manages to win the NL MVP award again this season. Even though Howard’s OBP is the worst posted by an MVP winner since Zoilo Versalles’ .319 back in 1965 and his BA would easily beat out the current worst of all time (.267 held by 1944 NL MVP Marty Marion), he is still considered by many to be a legit NL MVP candidate. It may come down to how much voters factor into team performance. Guys like Albert Pujols and Chipper Jones are far more deserving of the award statistically, but both players’ teams are well out of contention—the Braves are already mathematically eliminated, while the Cardinals have a .1% chance of making the playoffs. History could be made.
5. Speaking of history, did the Manny Ramirez trade make some of its own? While the fact Manny is no longer wearing a Sox uniform shouldn’t be too surprising, considering all his trade demands throughout the years, did anyone really think he was going anywhere this time around?
For once I (and many others) were convinced Manny Ramirez was going to stay put at the deadline and perhaps be a Red Sock forever, but in the final hour, whirlwind deadline talks gusted out of nowhere. The Red Sox, Dodgers, and Pirates worked frantically on a three-way deal and, when the trade storm came to an abrupt end, Manny Ramirez was no longer wearing Boston red. And no, he hadn’t stripped naked or sworn he’d never wear the uniform again until GM Theo Epstein traded him. But yes, regardless, it still ranks up there with Mr. Boston, Johnny Damon, donning pinstripes back in 2006.
4. And that brings us to the Detroit Tigers. Can we check the date on the calendar: this is 2008 and not 2003, right? Wasn’t this the team supposed to be battling the Angels, Red Sox, and Yankees for the AL Crown. Instead the only battle they’re waging these days is with the lowly Kansas City Royals in an effort to stay out of the cellar.
The perennial cellar dweller Royals sit only three and a half games behind Detroitin the AL Central race against loserdom. Like the Mariners, the Tigers went 88-74 last season and added some big name players to the fold. This is not what fans expected to see after watching guys like Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria come into town. Instead of taking them to the next level, Dontrelle spent most of his year in the minor leagues, and Edgar Renteria looked nothing like the offensive power he had been for the past two seasons in Atlanta.
They’re certainly not the only ones to blame. A starting rotation of Dontrelle Willis, Jeremey Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers, and Nate Robertson was somehow the front end of one the worst staffs in baseball as the Tigers currently rank 27th in team ERA. Heck, things got so bad that the Tigers recently brought in Freddy Garcia, which could have made the list on its own merit. And, if it weren’t for the emergence of Armando Galarraga, the Tigers wouldn’t have a single starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.00. Think about all this and realize we didn’t even get into the whole Gary Sheffield saga. For the Tigers sake let’s just move on…
3. Now we come to the collapse of the New York Yankees. The Yanks are currently tied for fourth place, 10 games out of first, and all but eliminated from playoff contention. And there were no mayflies involved this time! I’m sure this made plenty of fans across the nation jump for joy, but it doesn’t make it any less surprising.
We’re talking about a team that hadn’t missed the playoffs since 1993—technically the 1994 strike season, if you count a season in which no team made it to the playoffs. The same Yankees who went to six World Series in a span of seven years, 1996-2003, and won four of them. They also won nine consecutive AL East division titles until losing to the Red Sox by only a game and a half in 2007.
The whisperings in recent seasons of a Yankee fall had subsided with the rise of young guns like Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy. These three were supposed to take the Yanks straight back to the promised land, but Kennedy’s and Hughes’ ERAs have struggled to keep their bloated ERAs below 8.00. Chamberlain has done his part when healthy, but it wasn’t enough especially with other top Yankee starter Chien-Ming Wang going down for good in June after only 15 starts.
It’s too bad manger Joe Girardi wasn’t as good at handling the roster as he was with his number switch upon joining the Yankees’ ranks this off season. Sure makes you think the Steinbrenners wish they hadn’t fired Joe Torre who looks destined to be back in the October Classic with the Dodgers and his new pal Manny Ramirez.
2. With the Yankees fall, another team was bound to obtain the division crown this season, but surprisingly it wasn’t the defending division champion Red Sox. Yes, you read it right, the Tampa Bay Rays are at the top of the standings in the AL East. No, the Rays didn’t move from Boston or change their name from the Red Sox—only from the Devil Rays. These Rays are two games up in 1st place and all but assured a playoff spot.
In a division with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles; the Rays were the least likely division leader prior to the start of the season. The AL East boasts teams with the best pitching staff in the majors and the second most potent offense in the league and a team that won nine straight AL East division titles until 2007. Somehow, the team to crawl out to the division lead in late September is the one that finished last place every season—sans 2004 when they finished all the way up at fourth—since their inception in 1998.
This is a group whose team payroll is less than the aggregate salaries of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. A team that should have fallen when it lost three key players—Troy Percival, Evan Longoria, and Carl Crawford—for extended periods–. Instead, the Rays exerted their new found resiliency.
What makes this story even better is that they’re doing it for themselves. Tampa Bayunderstands this isn’t the NL West and the Red Sox won’t let them slide into the playoffs or the division title. They’ve faced Boston six times in the past week and a half and convincingly took four of six from the reigning AL and World Series champs. But, hey, at least they didn’t knock us further off our couches by firing their manager while in heated playoff contention. Inexplicably, this leads to the biggest surprise of 2008.
1. And here we have it, the greatest surprise of 2008: the Milwaukee Brewers fire their manager Ned Yost while tied for the wild-card lead. Elias Sports Bureau reported that it was the first time—except the strike-split 1981 season—a team ever fired their manager in August or later with the team still in playoff contention. To make matters worse, this was the first time the Brewers reached the playoffs in more than two and a half decades (since 1982).
Maybe the Brewers should have noticed that Yost was with them then too—as a player. Or maybe they should have noticed they were firing a manager who had guided the young Brewers to two consecutive winning seasons after fourteen consecutive years without a single one (Yost was fired on September 15th with the Brewers 83-67 and already assured of a winning record).
The Brewers must have been pretty sure of the decision to rid themselves of one of their best managers in recent history while they were tied for wild card lead, right? Well, if Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin’s quotation is any indication, don’t count on it:"(Yost) didn't have all the answers for what is going on the last two weeks and I'm not sure I have all the answers. I'm not sure this is the right one, either."
This certainly goes against what principal owner Mark Attanasio said regarding the move: "Nothing at all we do is rash. It's all reasoned and thoughtful." Well Mark, maybe you should have taken more input from your GM during this well-thought-out process as the team now sits on the outside looking in.
And that concludes our top ten surprises of the ’08 campaign! But after such a wild regular season, don’t count out some late September and October antics. Maybe Steve Bartman will make it out to a Cubs game for us…