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A Look Back At ’08

The year is passing quickly. The balls and bats, the lulavim and esrogim, the Phillies World Series memorabilia – all have been put away, and it’s time to look back on the 2008 baseball season.


The biggest surprise to many baseball people, even more than the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays, was the collapse of the Detroit Tigers. Picked to win the World Series by many publications and pundits, the Tigers, with baseball’s second highest payroll (behind the Yankees), finished last in the American League Central with a dismal 74-88 record.


While I didn’t predict the Tigers to win the World Series, I did pick them to be in it and lose to the Mets. And, as you know, the Mets skidded at the end of the season to finish at 89-73, three games behind the pennant-winning Phillies.


The Yankees also finished at 89-73, six games behind Boston and eight behind Tampa Bay. One thing’s for sure: both New York teams and Detroit will be bidding for top free agent pitchers this off-season.


The New York teams have a big advantage by playing in new stadiums next year; curiosity seekers will show up in big numbers willing to pay big ticket prices. The Tigers drew over 3.2 million in ’08, but an ailing economy will contribute to much smaller numbers paying to watch an overpaid and underperforming Tiger team.


I can’t recall a team with so many players having off years at the same time as the ’08 Tigers. What’s worse, the front office blundered with poor trades and rewarded undeserving players with megabuck contracts.


Dontrelle Willis was a perfect example. Willis had a 10-15 record with a high 5.17 ERA for the Marlins in 2007. After being traded to the Tigers, Willis had a terrible spring training beset by wildness and was sent to the minors. He ended up ended up not winning a single game in the majors or minors. The Tigers are also stuck with the final year of Gary Sheffield’s $14 million contract next season. Until the Tigers add two good starting and relief pitchers, they won’t be able to compete in the AL Central.


Help, however, may be on the way from within the organization. There are a couple of top pitchers in the low minors who starred in college ball, so look for the Tigers to growl again in 2010, if not next year.


The Angels won 100 games in ’08 season while the Cubs won 97 and both wrapped up playoff spots early. But both were eliminated early in postseason play as they made too many errors. Even top pitchers can’t be expected to get four and five outs in some innings without giving up runs.


It’s not that the Angels and Cubs are bad defensively, they just happened to get sloppy at crucial times in the playoffs. That was the beauty of last season — it wasn’t predictable.


The preseason predictions had the Tampa Bay Rays either at the bottom or close to it. The 2007 version of the Rays actually had 57 more hits, 27 more doubles and seven more home runs than the 2008 club. So how did the ’08 Rays win 97 games while only winning 66 the year before? The answer: pitching. The Rays staff allowed 300 fewer hits and 273 fewer runs and lowered the team ERA from 5.53 in 2007 to 3.62 in ’08.


The Yankees have $86 million dollars freeing up with the expiration of big contract to several veteran players. Of course, the Yanks may elect to re-sign a couple, but will probably opt to get younger replacements.


Jason Giambi (38 in January), who earned $21 million last season (.247, 32 homers, 96 RBI) won’t be getting that much from any team next year. Neither will Bobby Abreu, who’ll be 35 in March. Abreu had a pretty good year by batting .296 with 20 homers and 100 RBI, but won’t command the $16 million the Yanks paid him.


Manny Ramirez will be known as Money Ramirez after he signs his big contract. Coming off terrific numbers with the Dodgers after being traded by the Red Sox in July, Ramirez will be 37 next May and at that age it makes sense only for an American League team to pay him all those dollars on a long term contract as he’ll be best suited for a designated hitter role within two years. The Dodgers are willing to pay him over $20 million per year to retain his services but have to be careful with how many years they give him, especially as he has a habit of wearing out his welcome.


Baseball people couldn’t believe how reckless the Dodgers were with the contract they gave to Andruw Jones. Jones batted .222 for the Atlanta Braves in 2007 and entered free agency and jumped at the Dodgers offer of $36.2 million for two years. Jones proved to be baseball’s worst and most overpaid player in 2008 by batting .158 with only three home runs in an injury shortened season.


Speaking of statistics, only two players hit over 40 home runs in 2008. Ryan Howard of the Phillies led the majors with 48 while Adam Dunn of Arizona hit 40. Carlos Delgado (Mets) hit 38 and four players the 37 mark. Looks like we’re finally out of the steroid era. We’re back to normal statistics as most of the aging stars look washed up instead of beefed up.


I must admit I was rooting for the Red Sox over the Rays to represent the American League in the World Series. I was actually rooting for Fenway Park over Tropicana Field, the ugly domed stadium located in St. Petersburg that the Rays call home. Rays’ ownership spiffed up the dome, but you can put on all the lipstick you want, it’s still not an attractive venue for baseball.


The Rays have plans for an architecturally pleasing open-air ballpark on St. Pete’s waterfront. The project may pick up steam now that Tampa fans jumped on the baseball bandwagon.


How about the year Kevin Youkilis had for the Red Sox?  He batted .312 with 29 homers and 115 RBI while moving back and forth at the infield corner spots. A great defensive first baseman, Yuke played well at third base while filling in for Mike Lowell. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.326, 17 homers, 83 RBI) was the choice for American League Most Valuable Player according to most scribes, but I’d have given it to Youkilis.


One thing’s for sure: Youkilis is the American League’s MVJP (Most Valuable Jewish Player).


Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author: The author of 10 books, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed the legendary Hank Greenberg. He went on to work for a major league team and became the first Orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring. He can be reached in his Detroit area dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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