March 31, 2008

Can History Repeat Itself?

In 1990, the Cincinnati Reds’ starting catcher (Joe Oliver) hit .231. The guy who got the most playing time at first base (Todd Benzinger) wasn’t even the best hitting first baseman they had (Hal Morris). The second baseman (Mariano Duncan) had never hit above .248 in a season before then. The guy at third base (Chris Sabo) had 17 career taters to start the season. The center fielder (Eric Davis) was brittle. The left fielder (Billy Hatcher…yes, that Billy Hatcher) was coming off a season in which he hit only .231 and at the start of spring training was on his third team in less than a year. They had changed managers during the offseason. They had gone 75-87 the year before. They probably had no business being anywhere near the top of their division.

So naturally, they won the NL West by five games over the Dodgers, who had a 20-game winner in the rotation, a lineup that included Eddie Murray, Hubie Brooks, and Kirk Gibson, and were managed by Hall of Fame skipper Tommy LaSorda.

The Pirates team they played in the NLCS had a 22-game winner on the staff, had Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla in the lineup, and was managed by Jim Leyland. The Oakland team they played in the WS had won it all they year before, had Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, and Jose Canseco in the lineup, had three guys with 17 or more wins in the rotation including the eventual Cy Young winner, had Dennis Eckersley closing, and was managed by Tony LaRussa.

The ’90 Reds took the NLCS four games to two, then swept the World Series in one of the biggest upsets in baseball history. Hatcher set World Series records with seven consecutive hits and a .750 batting average for a four-game World Series (previously held by Babe Ruth, who had batted .625 in 1928). Davis hit a mammoth two-run dinger off Dave Stewart in the first inning of Game One to help snap Stewart’s six-game postseason winning streak (The classic Cinci Post headline the next morning read “DAVIS STUNS GOLIATH”). Game Two was won by Oliver’s tenth-inning bouncer down the third base line. Game Three was The Chris Sabo Show (“Spuds” belted a pair of homers). Game Four was a pitcher’s duel that Rijo won with Myers getting the final two outs.

What’s any of that got to do with this year’s Reds? Well, absolutely nothing. Except that if David Ross hits .231 he will have improved by 28 points over last year’s average. And that the guy who gets the most playing time at first base for the Reds this year (Scott Hatteberg) may not be the best hitting first baseman they have (Joey Votto). And that their third baseman (Edwin Encarnacion) is a guy who, like Sabo in 1990, may be ready for a breakout year. And that their right fielder (Ken Griffey, Jr.) is brittle and their center fielder (Corey Patterson) just got here after making the team as a non-roster invitee. And that they went 72-90 last year and changed managers in the offseason and probably have no business winning the division.

With that in mind, here’s my predicted order of finish in the NLC: Reds, Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Astros. Perhaps that’s insanity. Perhaps not. It’s a weak division. The Reds look like they might have some pitching for once. They have the best manager they’ve had since Jack McKeon and haven’t won a division crown since Davey Johnson was here, so they’re well overdue. I think the Brewers took a step backward this offseason, and the Cubs, are, well, The Cubs. The Brewers will finish at .500, the other four teams will have losing records, and the Astros will be so bad that the Pirates will actually escape the cellar.

The Reds will win 87 games and the division title. Not quite as lofty as the 91 games the Reds won under Lou Piniella in 1990, but winning even a weak division gets you into the playoffs, and wierd things happen in the playoffs (just ask the 2006 Cardinals).

Mind you, I am not predicting that the Reds are going to win the World Series this year. Even I’m not that insane! But fasten your seat belts and hold onto your hats, friends…I do have a hunch that this season is going to be an interesting ride.

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