THE WINTER IN WHICH YOUR PLANS DON’T MATTER
Earlier this winter, I was sitting at home, working on an installment of this column, while she was driving our young son to a music lesson and thence to pick up takeout for dinner. It was just a typical evening in a boring suburban life. Then my phone lit up. My wife was calling just a few minutes before I had expected her home; she wouldn’t normally phone if she was just moments from walking in the door. Pessimist that I am, I anticipated that something bad had happened even before she began speaking.
“We’ve been in an accident,” she said. “We are both okay, but the car is totaled.” She wanted me to come pick up our son, who was understandably shaken, while she stayed behind to await the arrival of the police.
I had a hard time breathing as I drove the few miles to where the accident had occurred. By the time I approached, the intersection was lit up by flashing police lights. The first thing I saw was the car. It’s front end was gone, the hood having crumpled all the way back to the passenger compartment. This was a good thing in the sense that the car did what it was supposed to do in an accident, folding in on itself instead of delivering the engine into the front seat, but it was still terrifying to see. If you had driven by at that moment and not known what had happened, you would have felt certain that someone had been killed. It was only when I spotted my wife and son standing on the side of the road that I was able to calm down a little.
I was very, very lucky. I could have lost two-thirds of my family. Instead, my wife had only a few bruises. My son had a bad rope burn where his seatbelt had grabbed him and he was a little reluctant to get into a car for a few days, but was otherwise unscathed. The other party was also uninjured, for which I am thankful. In the end, the only lasting consequence may be that we had to buy a new car.
It hasn’t been easy to forget that day. I think of it every time I drive my new wheels. The car is nice to have as the old one was getting on in years, but as luxurious as it is, in my mind it wears a scarlet A for “Accident.”
I also think of it when I consider the outlook for a few teams in this coming season.
We who write about baseball analyze trades and free-agent signings. We question why a manager plays this guy over that guy (Avisail Garcia versus anyone), or why a general manager retains a player who doesn’t do much for the winning effort (also Avisail Garcia), and those things, insofar as they are the result of planning, are fair game. Yet, as John Lennon sang, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Baseball is just like life in that much of it is contingent, a reaction to events rather than the result of a carefully thought-out strategy.
Normally, it would be fair game to criticize the Kansas City Royals’ starting rotation. It’s old and, on paper, mediocre: The only pitcher under 30 is Danny Duffy. Jason Vargas hasn’t been healthy in three years and even before that he was a low-strikeout, league-average pitcher at best. Jason Hammel finished the season in such a tailspin that the Cubs decided they could better defend their title without him. Another disavowed Cub, Travis Wood, was signed on Monday to a two-year deal. The left-hander has a career 4.19 ERA as a starter versus 2.83 as a reliever. He was very good as a starter in 2013, but the 30-year-old has never had two good years in a row. He spent all of last year in the ‘pen and although he had a strong 2.95 ERA, the peripherals weren’t nearly that good. At this stage of things he looks like a fine swingman, but might be stretched in the rotation.
Wood’s spot could also go to Nate Karns, who came over in January’s Jarrod Dyson deal with the Mariners. Between injuries and command problems, he’s 29 but coming off of what was only season 1.5 of his major league career. The aged Chris R. Young is also still on hand. The extreme fly-baller has never thrown even 180 innings in a season and given that he’s 38 it’s probably not time to ask him to start. More troublingly, last season those fly balls got the better of him, with an incredible 28 going over the wall in just 88.2 innings. Theoretically, rookie lefty Matt Strahm could be shifted from the bullpen, where he made his big-league debut last year, to the rotation, but he may not have enough quality pitches to endure in the role and Ned Yost has already publicly committed him to relief-work.
Finally, there’s Ian Kennedy, who—fair is fair—was better in 2016 than most prognosticators had expected him to be. There are reasons to be nervous about an encore: This was only the second season of his career of a high quality, he hasn’t had anything like two good seasons in a row since 2010-2012, and he too has home run issues. He’s allowed 64 over the last two years, the second-highest total in the majors in that span. The only pitcher who has allowed more is Kennedy’s former teammate James Shields, and there hangs a cautionary tale.
As I said, normally you could criticize this, or the drafting and development operation that hasn’t yielded strong in-house alternatives other than Duffy, a pitcher who was drafted nearly 10 years ago. The Royals can’t be faulted for the absence of three pitchers traded in the successful pursuit of the 2015 championship, former first-rounders Brandon Finnegan (for Johnny Cueto) and Sean Manaea (for Ben Zobrist) and second-rounder Cody Reed (also part of the Cueto deal), but in an ideal world a team might have hit on a few more draft picks or done more in the international market so they still had some post-trade options other than journeymen.
Yet, there is nothing normal about the Royals’ winter or the construction of the Royals’ rotation, because Yordano Ventura is dead. To whatever extent signing Hammel or Wood was a reaction to that, we just have to nod solemnly and understand.
We could have the same discussion about the Miami Marlins’ rotation and come to the same place. The Marlins have many strong players, but a rotation of Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley, Edinson Volquez, Dan Straily, and Tom Koehler isn’t worthy of a championship. The same need for acceptance applies: Jose Fernandez is dead, and that’s not something a team recovers from in the span of a few months, and in some senses, not ever: The Marlins may have another pitcher as good as Fernandez someday, but that pitcher will succeed him, not replace. An entire life’s work will still have been lost.
Or, in not nearly so dire a vein, we could note that in Alex Reyes the Cardinals simultaneously have one of the best, readiest pitching prospects in baseball and that having him will do them zero good in 2017 because he now requires Tommy John surgery. We could even mention former Twins manager/Diamondbacks bench coach Ron Gardenhire being diagnosed with prostate cancer. The universe mocks our plans.
In Connie Wills’ comic science-fiction novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, there’s a running gag about the reason Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, all involving counterfactuals: What if a key message relaying an order to one of his generals had not gone astray? What if an illegible order had been written more neatly? What if he had concentrated his forces a day earlier? What if hemorrhoids had not limited Napoleon in the run-up to the battle? What if there hadn’t been a heavy rain?
The answer is (A) All of the above, (B) None of the above, and (C) Fish. The more complex our undertakings, the more things can go wrong, and winning an 18th-century battle or building a baseball team are complex tasks indeed. A car swerves an inch to the left or the right and you have a narrow escape instead of tragedy. Someday in the future a history book celebrates a 95-67 season instead of 81-81, praises a manager or general manager for assembling a team that, in an alternative reality, still had its ace. Instead, with the amnesia induced by time, it will all get boiled down to records and curt dismissals: Dayton Moore failed to figure it out in 2017.
We know better now; try to remember how arbitrary it all is. I’ve seen it myself, and I will never stop being thankful for my own good fortune and saddened for the lack of it in others like the Marlins, like the Royals.