Sports Illustrated put out its annual SI Baseball Preview this week, which featured six regional covers (Stephen Strasburg, David Price, Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, James Shields and Clayton Kershaw), 42 pages of scouting reports with standings and playoff predictions, stat projections from rotowire.com and takes on every team from rival scouts. Additional MLB preview content, including news, analysis and video previews on every team by Tom Verducci can be found on SI.com.
With opening day just a few days away, we sat down to discuss the process of putting together all of this content with SI Assistant Managing Editor Stephen Cannella, who oversaw the SI Baseball Preview.
Cannella: I had the general idea to use “strikeouts” as the theme as far back as last August. Over the previous year or so our coverage had brushed up against the idea that the game was changing: the pendulum had swung away from the hitting dominance of the 1990s and early 2000s, but it was more than that. The game looks different than it did even in past pitching-dominated eras, and that difference lies in how many more strikeouts there are. Tom Verducci and I talked about it and we were both excited about it as a preview theme. Over the next five months we kept this idea in mind, and in January we got more specific—that’s when Tom decided we should focus on the Rays’ pitching staff as the state-of-the-art for this era. By the time spring training started, we had our scouts and writers lined up for who would cover each of the 30 teams. Copy started rolling in the second week of March and the issue came out this week.
What are the biggest challenges in managing this process?
Cannella: The timing is always tough. Things change a lot during spring training: players get hurt, get traded, play well or play poorly. Kyle Lohse signing with the Brewers and Vernon Wells being traded to the Yankees on the Monday that we closed, those are good examples of what can happen close to a deadline. In an issue of this size that relies so heavily on detailed information about rosters and lineups, keeping up with the news is a big challenge. That, and praying that none of our cover choices got hurt.
Why did you use the Rotowire.com projected stats in this year’s MLB Preview?
Cannella: We felt strongly that a preview should be forward thinking. The baseball analytics industry has become really good at predicting individual performance, and Rotowire is one of the best. I thought it would be fun to tap into that idea and have this issue tell readers more about what we think will happen this year than what did happen last year. It will be fun to look back in October and see how well we did. Hopefully we’ll do better with player projections than we usually do with our World Series prediction.
Why did SI feature six covers for the Baseball Preview?
Cannella: Several reasons, but the biggest is that baseball has more parity and is more unpredictable than ever before. Featuring six subjects reflects that: Every one of the six teams has a chance to contend this year, and all six pitchers we featured are poster boys for the strikeout trend we wanted to highlight. Multiple covers also gave us a chance to highlight some teams and markets that we don’t often feature prominently. Yes, we have Yankees and Dodgers covers. But I think it’s cool to see teams like the Royals and Rays get top billing too. I think the covers will create a lot of buzz in those markets.
How does the magazine work with SI.com?
Cannella: The magazine and the web site were very intertwined for this issue. Ted Keith, the SI.com baseball producer, and I worked closely to make the print and digital previews feel like parts of a whole. For our scouting reports, writers who covered spring training worked on the same teams for both magazine and web for the most part, producing different but complementary pieces for both. The hope is that the magazine and SI.com content work together and that readers will see reading on as the key to the full SI preview experience.
What can you tell me about the SI team of baseball writers?
Cannella: Well, the conversation starts with Tom Verducci. He’s the best baseball writer alive and will go down as one of the best ever. HIs three stories in the preview issue demonstrate his various strengths. “Generation K” shows off his ability to spot trends and distill the big picture into a perfect snapshot of what’s happening in the game at any given moment. In “The Rays Way” he drills down into the art and science of pitching development—it’s a terrific inside-baseball story packaged in great narrative. And in “Washington Heights” he brings a historical perspective to one of the teams of the moment, the Nationals. The rest of our team is fantastic as well. Ben Reiter, Albert Chen, Joe Lemire and Matt Gagne blanketed spring training and turned out a ton of great scouting report material for the magazine and the web. Ted Keith gets a special shoutout: Not only did he edit and produce the web package, he wrote five team previews as well. It was a lot of work, and everyone did a spectacular job.
Who do you predict will win this year’s World Series? Any sleeper teams?
Cannella: I will stick with the pick we made in the magazine – the Nationals. But as I mentioned earlier, so many teams can compete this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays, Reds, Dodgers, Tigers, or the Angels as the last team standing. As for sleeper teams, I think the Royals, Indians and Padres have a chance to sneak up on people this season.
In clubhouses from Class A to the majors, even superstars such as Albert Pujols and CC Sabathia still speak in awe of the promise of the late Brian Cole, an outfielder in the Mets’ system from 1998 through 2000 who died in a 2001 car accident. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, contributing writer Michael McKnight tells the story of Cole, the best player you never saw.
“He was a player we were going to build around as an organization…We were planning on David Wright at third base, Jose Reyes at shortstop and Brian Cole in the outfield,” says former Mets general manager Jim Duquette (PAGES 114-115).
Cole hit .306 with 42 home runs, 90 doubles, 193 RBIs and 135 stolen bases during his time in the Mets organization. When the Mets drafted him in 1998, in the 18th round, he was only 5’8”, 160 pounds.
“You’d think, man, this is just a little guy…and then you were amazed by his power—driving the ball into both gaps and then standing on third like it was nothing,” says Albert Pujols (PAGE 114).
Cole learned to play baseball on the crude diamonds in Mississippi against his older brothers and other players two and three times his size. In high school, he earned all-state honors in Mississippi for both football and baseball. He was the first kid in Mississippi to hit four home runs in one game. In his senior year of high school, he hit 10 homers in a six-game span. And Cole’s statistics during his lone season at Navarro Junior College were “Just crazy, Wiffle-ball numbers,” says Dave Lottsfeldt, the Mets scout who signed him (PAGE 116).
When people ask him about Cole, Diamondbacks reliever Heath Bell says “I sit them down and tell them about the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen.” (PAGE 114)
Sabathia faced Cole once in a 1998 game in the minors. Cole belted a 97 mph fastball off the wall in his first at bat. “Brian Cole,” Sabathia says, “was the player who showed me I needed to develop an off-speed pitch,” (PAGE 114).
Despite his incredible athletic ability, Brian Cole wasn’t perfect. McKnight found he had at least three weaknesses—He didn’t care for schoolwork, he didn’t always run out ground balls and he could become desperately homesick. The third weakness is the one he would never defeat, the one that would help bring about his end.
On March 31, 2001, the 22-year-old decided to take a trip home to fix his car and most importantly, to see his family. Cole never made it to his hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, as he got into a terrible car accident in an effort to avoid a car that entered his lane while traveling westbound on State Highway 8 near the Florida-Georgia border. He was thrown from the vehicle and died several hours later in a Florida hospital.
“We saw [G.M] Steve [Phillips] on the phone for a long time, and everyone got the creeps,” Mike Piazza told reporters the next day (PAGE 118).
After a long nine years in and out of court, the Cole family settled a lawsuit with Ford in 2010 for an undisclosed sum. They had claimed Brian Cole’s Ford Explorer was defective in its design, as it was prone to roll over and that his seatbelt had malfunctioned.
Brian Cole very much remains a big part of the lives he touched. “This might sound strange to y’all…but how can you mourn someone who’s still here,” says Maudelene Cole, Brian’s mother (PAGE 119).
In a time where pitching has taken on more importance than ever before, the Rays have found success utilizing a pitching perspective that is both “youthful” and “entrepreneurial”. In this week’s issue of SI, senior writer Tom Verducci examines the Rays stern belief in growing their pitching from the ground level up and how it enabled them to create one of the best pitching programs in baseball—one that has led to them winning an average of 91.6 games during the last five seasons, good for third best in baseball. Tampa has become the Silicon Valley of pitching. Verducci writes:
“No franchise better understands how to identify, develop and maintain quality pitchers. The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms.” (PAGE 53)
In 2012, the Rays had the lowest ERA in the American League (3.19) and held batters to the lowest average in 40 years of baseball all while operating with the third lowest payroll in the American League. The Rays find value by developing both the mental and physical strength of young pitching prospects and have them do so in a slow progression through their farm system. Unlike other low budget baseball teams, the Rays expect their major league pitchers to have entered every level of the minors and expect to have each player spend at least a year per level.
This pitching philosophy was adopted under the pretense that “the most valuable currency in today’s game isn’t just pitching – it’s healthy pitching, especially starting pitching, which accounts for 66% of major league innings and 71% of the wins,” explains Verducci. (PAGE 55)
Pitchers like Taylor Guerrieri, a hotshot high school prospect drafted by the Rays in 2011, have learned this philosophy the hard away. Upon being drafted Guerrieri was quoted saying: “I wouldn’t mind being up there in two years,” in regards to a major league debut. As we enter the 2013 season, Guerrieri will start at Class A Bowling Green and his starts will be strictly limited to 5 innings or 75 pitches. This isn’t because of lack of talent or confidence; it is purely part of the Rays development plan. They focus on developing arm strength that will lessen the risk of early injury in its up and coming pitchers.
James Shields, now a starting pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, knows this plan better than anybody else. Drafted by the Rays out of high school in 2000, he began at Hudson Valley and quickly moved through the levels of the Rays farm system. But after starting the season shakily with a weak arm in 2004 as part of the Double A in Montgomery, Shields was demoted. When Shields returned to spring training the following season after working out in the offseason with his cousin, former major league outfielder Aaron Rowand, his arm had sprung back to life and he devoted himself fully to the Rays shoulder strengthening program, a program that utilizes workout bands, dumbbells and weighted balls twice a week for thirty-minutes.
“No matter where I pitch,” explains David Price, the Rays current pitching ace, “I’m taking this program with me. It’s the best. I tell everybody that comes here, ‘You probably won’t be very good at these [exercises] for a year. It’s tough on your arm at first. It makes you pretty sore. But once you get acclimated to it, it’s great.’ If I didn’t do it now? I would feel it big time.” (PAGE 54)
Between the promotion of slow development, arm strengthening and the implementation of baseball analytics that expose every opponent’s weakness, the Tampa Rays have taken their cost-effective home grown pitching staff from small-time threat to elite status in only a matter of years. With David price leading the way, the Rays are a force to be reckoned with in the unusually vulnerable American League East in 2013.
2012 was supposed to be the Miami Marlins year. They had a new $634 million facility, a new manager and even a new logo that better reflected their new Miami friendly image. But somewhere along the way things went very wrong for team owner Jeffrey Loria and his right hand man Dave Samson, Loria’s ex step son and president of the Marlins organization. Their brilliant new stadium suddenly became a burden that could cost tax payers upward of $2.4 billion, their new manager, the always controversial Ozzie Guillen, was quoted saying he loved and respected Fidel Castro, a less than welcome sentiment in the Cuban friendly city, and as the Miami Marlins slowly began to sink back in the standings so did their attendance rate. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, S.L. Price takes a look at the least popular man in Miami and attempts to understand if Jeffery Loria is really all that bad.
Loria, a New York native, purchased the Marlins in 2002 and their World Series victory the following season allowed him to feel a short lived sense of welcome and hope for his newest business venture. While most owners find themselves obsessing about the business of their team, Loria just simply loved baseball and above all else, winning.
“That’s all he talks about,” says Andre Dawson, Hall of Famer and member of the Marlins’ front office. “Winning another World Series.” (PAGE 92)
But while some find Loria to be one of the least meddlesome owners in baseball, it is hard to forget his whimsical decisions such as the firing, rehiring and then refiring of Joe Girardi in 2006. His latest decisions have former players and fans of the Miami Marlins reeling. After squeezing a new stadium out of the county and producing a less than stellar team in 2012, Loria slashed the team’s $110 million payroll to $38 million almost overnight. The cuts included the trading of fan favorite’s shortstop Jose Reyes and pitcher Mark Buehrle to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“This is the most despised ownership I’ve ever seen in this town,” says Carolos Gimenez, the Miami-Dade mayor. “They took the county for a ride to get a stadium. They’ve taken the people for a ride with the product they’ve put out. They develop players, and as soon as they become good and somewhat expensive: Bloop! Off they go. There’s no continuity here.” (PAGE 88)
But while the anger grows and the fans dwindle, Price attempts to understand how it all went so wrong. Samson explains that in a season there are four outcomes: a team wins and draws fans, a team wins and doesn’t draw fans, a team loses but still draws fans and finally a team loses and doesn’t draw fans. When proposing the budget blowing push for the 2012 season, Samson and his team projected the likelihood of a “team loses and doesn’t draw fans” scenario to be only 5%. They were wrong.
“What we [predicted] turned out not to happen – but that’s not lying,” says Samson. “That’s like saying that everyone who gets divorced was lying on their wedding day.” (PAGE 97)
Tim Layden explores the myth of the man who had once borne his blood on big league diamonds
Senior writer Tim Layden had been name-dropping his great uncle for years: Johnny Evers was a Hall of Fame second baseman and part of the Cubs’ famous Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance double play crew in the early 1900s. But it was less than a year ago that Layden decided to write a story about Evers, and he details the process that led him to understand his Uncle Johnny’s life, marked by success on the field but personal tragedy and financial ruin off it.
Layden took special care to learn about one of the most notable events in Evers’ career: A controversial game-ending double play in 1908, in which Evers forced out New York Giants first baseman Fred Merkle to prevent the Giants from winning a crucial pennant race game. Layden found he wasn’t the only one fascinated by the mysterious play: TV commentator Keith Olbermann bought the ball used in the play at auction in 2010, and has made an avocation of vigorously defending Merkle’s actions. Olbermann bought the ball at auction in 2010 not only because he is an avid memorabilia collector but also because the Merkle ball holds particular significance, saying: “It’s the Rosetta Stone. This is the time-travel node that puts you on the middle of this swirling dust storm with 10,000 fans on a Wednesday afternoon at the Polo Grounds 104 years ago” (page 60).