The Small Market Superstars

The Atlanta Braves and the Oakland A’s are definitely not the sexiest teams in Major League Baseball, but they sure are good. They have quietly put together very respectable seasons, and both teams are in excellent position to make moves in October. Nipping on the heels of the Boston Red Sox, the Braves and A’s maintain the second- and third-best records in baseball. Atlanta and Oakland aren’t the most glamorous markets in baseball, but their fans are passionate about their teams, and rightfully so. With home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in sight, the A’s and Braves are looking to make it to the World Series. The ratings would be terrible to the disdain of Bud Selig, but neither team could care less.

Let’s start with the Braves. After winning 14 consecutive division titles, the Braves have been in a drought. Until this year the Braves have not won the NL East since 2005. The Braves have cruised throughout the entire season, without any obstacles in the way. They have avoided serious injuries all year and every other team in the NL East has been very disappointing. The Nationals were many experts’ World Series picks. Boy, do they look wrong now. The Phillies are old and hurt. The New York Mets do have some talent, but an underachieving season in Queens took place yet again. Finally, the Florida, I mean Miami Marlins do have a rising star in Giancarlo Stanton and a colorful new baseball stadium, but the team is pathetic. They will be sending thank you cards to the Astros for helping them avoid even more shame and embarrassment. All in all, the Braves played well enough to win the division, but many teams could have taken advantage of their weak rivals.

The Oakland A’s path to the AL West division title has been a little more challenging than the Braves’. They actually have a decent team that plays in their division, the Texas Rangers, who are fighting for a Wild Card spot. The Los Angeles Angels are just as disappointing as the Nationals and the Phillies, proving that having a big payroll only matters in the United Nations. The Seattle Mariners are a lost franchise, with no direction or identity. They have even caused their manager to have cardiac problems because they are so heartbreaking to watch. Hope you are doing okay Eric Wedge.  And as foreshadowed earlier, the Houston Astros make the word awful seem attractive. They have lost more than 100 games and probably every last fan of baseball in Houston. That organization is so desperate that it has to pay their fans to come to the games. The players are the ones asking for the autographs. The days of the Killer B’s are gone, and the Astros are grateful that this season is almost over, too. These disappointing and poor teams have paved the way for the A’s to claim the division, but this should not hide the fact that the A’s are a hell of a ballclub.

The Braves are led by rising star Freddie Freeman. His left-handed bat represents the most intimidating presence in their lineup. Justin Upton and Brian McCann contribute with their clutch bats as well, doing it in a nonchalant way.  Veterans Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton have the same story. They won’t hit for average and they strike out more than Pete Weber, but are capable of hitting some deep balls in October. They have a pitching staff full on young studs. Julio Teheran, Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Alex Wood are inexperienced, but capable of shutting down any offense. Their bullpen is solid and they have the best closer in baseball in Craig Kimbrel. I feel bad for McCann’s hand when he pitches. Ouch.

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Bottom line is the Braves are like that nice coworker that performs well all the time. You cannot really say a bad word about him. He is too nice to want to criticize. No ego at all, very humble. Like that coworker, the Braves are not flashy, they do not search for attention and in return none is really given to them. However, they win, win, and win. Whether we notice is irrelevant. Led by Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves head into October with a lot of confidence in themselves and chances in winning it all. Do they have the real superstars, hitting or pitching that it usually takes to win it all? Only time will tell.

Similar to the Braves, the A’s are a quiet group of ballplayers that only the avid baseball fan knows about. If you thought the Braves lacked stars, then the A’s would be a lunar eclipse near a black hole. We know Billy Beane likes science with his beliefs in sabermetrics, a numbers approach to baseball. Each year, they produce players that most teams have discarded. This year’s A’s include leading hitters Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes is like the A’s version of Yasiel Puig, minus the cocky attitude, ego, boneheaded mistakes, sliding into home plate on a walk-off and tardiness. OK, so maybe the similarities only lie with their Cuban heritage and use of interpreters.

Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp round out the rest of the meat of their lineup and nobody could tell you they have watched more than one of their at-bats this year. The only thing catchy about their team is that they have a guy named Coco Crisp. The A’s are the only franchise left that shares a field with another team, not worth spending money on a new stadium. Where they play doesn’t matter to them and neither does who watches them. Point being is that the A’s are not rating-friendly. Even with the Moneyball movie, most fans do not regard them as a must-see team to watch. They are not shown on Sunday Night Baseball and the A’s are perfectly content with that. They are a feel-good Cinderella story that always makes the tournament, but never makes noise. They are the Boise State of baseball, minus the blue turf. Bartolo Colon may be more bloated than the Goodyear Blimp, but he is dominating this year and leading the pitching staff. For the A’s, they will get another crack to make Beane’s dream come true for a real Hollywood ending.

The Braves and A’s have a lot in common and the same goal. They lack the big names and market that most World Series teams have. From their manager (head) to their toe (closer), their squad is full of guys who only fantasy experts and statisticians recognize. When a viewer sees Oakland or Atlanta on the TV guide, the channel is skipped over way more times than not. However, they play the game the right way. They get the runners on, over, and in, and it does not matter who does it. Winning is most important and both teams, I emphasize teams, have done it a lot this year.

The real question now is do they have what it takes to win it all this year? It is possible, but history says it is unlikely. Even though the Braves won 14 consecutive championships with solid ballclubs from 1992-2005, they only won one World Series. Even though Beane and the A’s had a movie written about their unconventional success story, there actually has been very little success for them in October. There is a reason Ralph Nader had no chance in his Presidential aspirations. The big names always win. Superstars are made in October. Who knows? This year’s World Series’ superstars might not be superstars after all. The Atlanta Braves and Oakland A’s would not have it any other way.

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Paul Culley
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Battle: Los Angeles

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Two former Cy Young winners, two former MVPs, two teams and one city suddenly exploding with baseball talent. The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim recently broke the bank to snare the best free agents available on the market. With the financial backing of Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Baseball Management, the Dodgers continued their spending spree and bolstered their starting pitching by signing Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract. The spending spree appeared to be contagious. The Angels and Arte Moreno signed division rival slugger Josh Hamilton to a 5-year, $125 million contract just a few days later. Eyes are turning towards the gold rush going on out west and both the Dodgers and Angels enter the 2013 season with high expectations. The high payrolls and amount of talent on each team, invoke playoff expectations and World Series hopes. Most exciting for Southern Californians (unless you need to take I-5 to get somewhere quick in late October), it creates the potential for a Freeway World Series in the years to come.

With the Dodgers’ gross expenditure and addition of talent, anything less than a World Series berth can be called a failure of a season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have become the Yankees of the west. When you carry the highest payroll in baseball, you’re paying for championships. Good seasons and playoff berths simply won’t cut it.  Magic’s mountain of cash has raised Dodger fans’ expectations high, but will free-fall if the Dodgers fail to win. One of the largest hurdles for the 2013 Dodgers will be to overcome the world champion San Francisco Giants and win the NL West crown. The off-season acquisitions of Greinke and South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-Jin bolsters the starting pitching of a team that already includes the best left-hander in the NL, Clayton Kershaw. While the starting rotation seems solid, the Dodgers will need more to match expectations. Dodger fans will need to hope for the health of all-star Matt Kemp and that the late acquisitions from the Boston Red Sox trade will perform better than last year. If Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier’s bats can be as big as their names and contracts, the Dodger’s lineup can have solid output in 2013.

While the Dodgers become a contender, Arte Moreno is making sure that Los Angeles is not solely a sea of Dodger blue. Even with the Angels’ addition of Los Angeles to their name, the city has always been Dodgertown. The Angels have been unable to penetrate the market to the degree that Moreno hoped. The Angels stole the spotlight by inking Albert Pujols last year, and again captured the nation’s attention by signing Josh Hamilton this offseason. The Angels have created a lineup that is not only terrifying to opposing pitchers, but also arguably the most marketable in baseball. Featuring Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo, the line-up resembles the Fantastic Four rather than reality. It’s only a matter of time until Trout, Pujols and Hamilton are plastered amongst billboards along I-5 and commercials throughout Los Angeles in a Moreno marketing campaign. In addition, he may want to make sure his star pitcher gets some coverage as Jered Weaver figures to have another great season. While Weaver can be relied upon to perform well, the starting rotation lacks some depth. C.J. Wilson is certainly solid but the rotation of Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas leaves something to be desired. Regardless, the Angels can be expected to be more than just hype in the coming season.

Baseball’s Battle: Los Angeles transcends the traditional freeway series or a possible World Series. Wins and losses are not the only things that the Angels and Dodgers are competing for; there is immense competition for the Los Angeles market. With the ever-increasing growth of television deals and the enormous market of Los Angeles, both the Angels and Dodgers want to soak the market. Los Angeles has long been considered a city of fair-weather fans, with popularity correlating directly to wins. While recent signings by both teams show an emphasis to ‘win now’, the Angels’ additions display Moreno’s desire to expand their market. By signing Pujols and Hamilton to long-term deals, the Angels paid big money for big names and big bats. Moreno knows that guys like this get national attention.  Surely Moreno hopes that their popularity will creep beyond Anaheim and Orange County, and into the profitable Los Angeles and national markets.

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Tye Masters
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