Finches GM Scott Hatfield will not confirm, but neither will he deny published reports that suggest this may be his last year helming the Darwin franchise, but he did have some pointed comments about the ball club that may not sit well with other owners.
THE BEST TEAM...EVER?
"Essentially," Hatfield said, "This is the best team I've ever built, and I fully expect to win close to 100 games, make the playoffs and (if things go my way) win the whole thing. I don't say this idly, but I do expect to win a championship, and this is not something that I could've said in previous seasons. We have a unique window, where we have tremendous depth on offense, improved defense, lots of young pitching and just enough cap to handle it."
"We will lose a lot of that edge in 2009," conceded Hatfield, "but we will remain a contending club due to the nucleus of young players: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Khalil Greene, Jeff Francouer, Dustin McGowan and the slew of young lefties. Add to that a coterie of the finest switch-hitters in the game (Berkman, Chipper Jones, Carlos Guillen, Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley) and we have an offense that is just a nightmare for opposing managers in the late innings. So, as I've said before, as far as I'm concerned we should be the front-runners in this division. The other clubs, long operating at a talent level higher than the Finches, have all slipped and it will take them more than a year to get back to where they were before."
"Bottom line," Hatfield concluded, "We're the class of the division now, and the Eastern Division is still arguably the league's most competitive. The only significant talent I'm going to expose in the early rounds of the draft is Kelvim Escobar, who is making $8.5 million and will miss at least the first month of BARB action with an injury. I'd like to see the GM who will go out on a limb and draft Escobar in the first three rounds, paying up to $11 million for a guy who's going to be out for part of the year, and give me an extra draft pick to boot high in the draft."
This is not the first championship club I've built. In my very first league (the old FL), I won the inaugural season back in 1989 with a good, but significantly-flawed club that featured a young Roberto Alomar filling in at short, an outfield of Andy Van Slyke and Tony Gwynn, and ace Orel Hershiser handing the ball to Dennis Eckersley. That was OK, but in retrospect it was case of luck and (also) the total lack of experience by all involved.
The following season, I took my first-ever expansion club. This club, eventually known as the Leon Redbones (out of Leon, Mexico) would take back-to-back championships in 1992-93, but it wasn't easy. I started out with the league's rejects, among them castoff OF Ivan Calderon and closer Tom Henke, then spent two years dealing washed-up players for prospects.
I was roundly mocked in my first season for trading hot shot Mets IF Gregg Jefferies (a two-time Minor League Player of the Year) for soft-tossing lefty Zane Smith (who was, at the time, 1-13 with the Expos) and an aging (43 years old when I got him) Nolan Ryan. But these two partnered with ex-Yankee Doug Drabek to form the nucleus of my rotation, winning 100 games between the three of them over the next two seasons. Ryan threw a no-hitter for the Rangers shortly after I acquired him and he would add a pair of no-no's for my team, as well. When he hung it up in 1993, Ryan was still throwing 98-mph fastballs at the age of 46.
Of course, it was more than just the pitching. The club overall had a strong Blue Jays flavor, with the afore-mentioned Tom Henke closing, a young Pat Borders behind the plate, Robbie Alomar at 2B, under-rated defender Devon White patrolling CF and 3B Kelly Gruber. As mentioned, Calderon proved to be a good regular for me in LF, and another veteran unloaded by his old team, Andre Dawson, revived his stock while playing RF for Leon, earning our league's MVP award in 1992, and I got a lot of mileage from SS Billy Spiers, whose career was shortened by injuries.
Notice that many of these guys had abbreviated careers. I caught them in the 4-5 years in which they blossomed, pretty much at the same time, and won nearly 200 games with them over a two-year period. By then, I moved on to other challenges, building another expansion team from scratch. This club, the Las Vegas Flamingoes, was never able to win a Series during the five years of operation, though it did go from losing 100+ games to being an above-.500 ballclub and making the playoffs in 1997. Many of the owners in the league had caught up with me in terms of acumen in evaluating talent, and a flaw in that league's design made it difficult for the have-not's to catch up to the have's after a certain point. I left this league after 12 years of operation (1988-1999) with many fond memories, including the unlikely spectacle of the grotesque Kevin Mitchell hammering three home runs in the final game of the 1996 World Series to upset the league's most dominant club, the Blackburn Walkabouts. Good times.
BUILDING A NEW LEGACY
When I returned to fantasy baseball in 2003 at Bullard High, I determined that I would set a different system in place, one that would allow for greater parity year-to-year and prevent one club from hoarding minor-league talent. In my first year of operation, I again won a division title (in fact, over 100 games) with the Delta V's, only to be upset in the Series by the slugging of the Santa Barbara Storm (now rechristened Frostbite Falls).
Satisfied that this club was on a strong footing, I took an expansion club (the Darwin Finches), and it's been a wild ride. After losing nearly 100 games in our inaugural season, the Finches slugged their way into the playoffs in 2005. We just didn't have enough pitching, though, and so again fell to a club that did. Rather than attempting to maintain that nucleus, I traded the talent widely regarded as our club's best player (2B/SS Michael Young) and best reliever (LHP Billy Wagner) but in return acquired substantial talent while stockpiling prospects. Following a losing season in 2006, we freely pilfered some top bats away from other clubs in the Draft to go with our newly-bolstered bullpen, and rode a league-leading 93 wins to a division title. While we lost the Series in seven games largely due to poor fielding, we have essentially the same nucleus returning this year with what we hope will be stronger up-the-middle defense. Without a doubt, I have taken another collection of castoffs and turned them into a powerhouse.
So, after this season, you can expect that I will pursue other challenges. The Finches will be an attractive club for a new owner, especially if they have taken post-season honors again. This will be my 18th year of operating a computer-based baseball simulation, and in that time I have only had eight post-season berths and two championships, partly due to my love of expansion clubs. Perhaps, after this year, it will be time for me to try expansion....for the fourth time.