Let the games begin. Almost.
Well here in the south, the Blue bonnets are up, the swallows and flycatchers are arriving back by the day , which is good as the bugs they snack on are coming out by the hour. Spring is here. In places like Minneapolis, Detroit, and my old Toronto stomping grounds, not so much. Nonetheless, MLB is about to kick off the 2019 season… with an asterisk… (*) because two games already took place, of course, in Japan between Oakland and Seattle. For those of us over on this side of the Pacific, action will begin before the weekend.
The two games in Japan weren’t of huge importance for the most part. After all, it was only two games and neither the A’s or the Mariners are widely expected to be playoff contenders, although that said, Oakland sure fooled everyone last year. What the fan really got to take away from it though was one last chance to see a future Hall of Famer play. In front of his home crowd no less.
The great Ichiro Suzuki, who essentially retired as a player mid-season last year was back in a Seattle uniform one last time, to thrill both the Mariners faithful and his fans back home in Tokyo. Alas, he didn’t do a whole lot in the two games. If it was a Disney film, his last at bat would have been a walk-off homer or else a single, with him stealing second, third then home to win the game. Instead Ichiro went hitless and to no one’s surprise announced his retirement following the second game.
Ichiro was great. He had it all. He hit for contact like few others in the game, had speed on the bases and in the outfield, a good throwing arm and although not often on display, a decent amount of power. It was refreshing seeing a “throwback” player like him in the era immediately after the Steroids era, leading into the current era of Rob Deer or Dave Kingman wannabes. Ichiro showed that talent was talent. The Japanese pro league may not be the equal of MLB but a great player there is still a great player here. Most of all, Ichiro played with class. He set an example for young players watching the pros.
That Ichiro will be a first ballot Hall of Famer should be a no-brainer. Consider for a moment just his American totals. Parts of 19 seasons played. Ten Gold Gloves. Ten All Star teams. 2001 Rookie of the Year. Over 3000 hits and 500 stolen bases, a combination only equaled by Lou Brock, Paul Molitor and Rickey Henderson in modern times. Ranked in the top 40 all-time in at bats, hits, steals and runs. Ten straight .300 or better seasons to start his career. That’s quite a resume in itself… and that puts aside the fact that he was already an established star in Japan before coming across the ocean. There he hit .353 over 951 games, and actually clipped one more homer there (118) than in the MLB. Worth noting since it is the Baseball Hall of Fame,not just the MLB Hall of Fame.
With Ichiro gone, that leaves by my reckoning, two sure-fire, carved in stone, Hall of Famers to watch and appreciate this season as they approach their sporting twilight: Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
Cabrera may be the only thing to really make people want to watch the Tigers this season (particularly after, not if but when they trade Nick Castellanos) Miggy, surprisingly is still only 35 but you can be forgiven for thinking him older. He’s not exactly the picture of athleticism anymore and this will be his 17th season to boot. It makes it easy for the ADD crowd to forget that in 2012 he won a Triple Crown … and that wasn’t even his best season, if going by the all-encompassing OPS. Four batting titles, 11 All Star games, two MVP awards. three years with a .600+ slugging percentage. 465 career homers and 1635 RBI, to go with a .316 career average putting him just behind Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Kirby Puckett among players who have graced the diamonds in the past three decades. While he might not get to 500 longballs this season, with just 13 he can pass Adrian Beltre to move into the top 30 all-time… and don’t utterly discount his chances of getting to 500 before 2020. Although he only hit 16 in a disappointing 2017 and 3 in a much-abbreviated (due to injury) ’18, reports are that he looks rejuvenated this spring and he’s launched 5 with a .739 slugging pct. in spring training. Get practicing those intricate “D”s for the cap, plaque carvers… Cabrera will be Detroit’s next inductee.
Even more of a shoo-in for Cooperstown, Albert Pujols gives you something to do when a certain outfielder whose name sounds like a fish isn’t at the plate for the otherwise rather run-of-the-mill Angels.
Although no longer the superstar he was in his prime, and now often pointed to as an example of the perils of large, multi-year contracts for teams , Pujols’ career has really been something. Three MVPs, 10 All Star Games, two Gold Gloves (even though he’s never been one to come to mind for most when thinking about great defensive players), ten 100 run seasons, 8 years with an OPS over 1.000 and a career begun with 12-straight 30 or better homer seasons. Add it up and he’s got a .302 career average (despite diminishing returns of late), 3082 hits, 633 homers and 1982 RBI. By the time the summer heats up, every at bat of Pujols could be an event – just 18 more RBI and he’ll be only the fourth player of the post-WWI era to notch 2000, putting him on the same footing as Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and, umm, A-Rod. Speaking of the future Mr. Jennifer Lopez, Albert can top him with 105… a longshot, it would seem when looking at the last few years (in 2018, he hit just .245 with 19 homers, 64 RBI and struck out more than twice as many times as he walked) but if he gets slotted in behind Mike Trout in the lineup and keeps up his torrid spring pace (a .571 slugging percentage with 3 homers this spring in the cactus league) and don’t put it past him. And when he clips his 28th next homer, he’ll pass Willie Mays for fifth all-time. Mind you, last time he hit 28 HR in a year was 2016, but if not this year, don’t doubt he’ll get there. Los Angeles Anaheim have him signed through 2021, at no less than $28 million per season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll be there with Hammerin’ Hank and the Bambino as the only 700 home run hitter not tainted by PED scandal. Pujols is a no doubter, Hall of Famer five years after he retires, although whether he goes in wearing the St. Louis red cap, the Anaheim red cap, or as seems the current trend, no team emblem at all, remains to be seen.
The two players to watch to be able to tell future generations of fans, or Cooperstown visitors, “I saw them play.”
Yes, if Mike Trout keeps up even a fraction of his productivity for another three or four years, he’ll be in. Maybe Pujols’ former teammate Yadier Molina will make it. If little Jose Altuve is half as good over the next two or three years as he’s been for the past half dozen, he’ll represent Houston in that building in upstate New York. Perhaps a future blog will look at the careers of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander and how they stack up compared to Hall of Fame pitchers… but for all that, mark it down. Pujols and Cabrera are guaranteed Hall of Fame players on the field this month. The list starts, and ends with those two.
Next up, we start to look at the predictions for the 2019 season…