If baseball bosses were given awards like players, there’s no chance that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred would win a Gold Glove. Clearly Mr. Manfred seems uniquely able to keep dropping the ball every time he gets to it. This month two more examples arise as the players blow the dust off their gloves and bats for Spring training.
First there’s the ongoing Astros debacle. Now, I will say that to me his reaction seemed reasonable. He suspended the Astros manager and GM for a year, he fined the club as much as he could with the limitations of the Collective Bargaining agreement and he took away draft picks. Houston should feel rebuked; Boston should be nervous since they too are apparently under investigation for the same thing and have a direct link through (now fired) manager Alex Cora.
I’m OK with that, as long as there are warnings all around that if it happens again, the punishment is going to be ramped up for players as well as coaches. I am not most fans – or most MLB players – however. Outrage is pouring out of every corner of the baseball world and at a time when the game should be getting an annual dose of positive press – baseball returns after a long winter with games in Florida and Arizona, optimistic projections for even lacklustre teams, players having fun and interacting with fans in small stadiums and so on – it seems story after story revolves around the Astros and their cheating. Apologies have been slow in coming and half-hearted at best from most of the Astros, and perhaps the most believable have been from pitchers (who didn’t benefit directly) and their fired manager AJ Hinch.
As I said to reader Badfinger20 in a comment to the last post, I am not a professional consultant or counselor. But there are such people. The types that companies hire when things go sideways for them – products get tampered with; bosses call minorities the “N” word, engineers falsify pollution tests and so forth. I’m not one of those spin doctors, and neither apparently is Manfred. Maybe he should have used one because this little scandal, now months old, is not only not going away it actually appears to be meta-sizing and snowballing.
Then we have the ongoing problem that is the Tampa Bay Rays. A feisty and usually over-achieving team set in one of the league’s smaller markets, one inhabited it might seem by people who don’t care much for baseball. This is not Manfred’s mistake in itself. The team existed for a couple of decades before he took the job running the league and, when it was awarded a franchise, Tampa seemed like a viable spot for a team. After all, it had an older population (typically more of the generations who love baseball) and has been a major, popular center for Spring training. The Rays should have done fine.
They haven’t. Now, on field, they’ve had some success and post a competitive team more often than not, so they’re A-OK in that department. However, off field things haven’t been so kind to the Rays. They have a stadium that almost everybody despises, in St. Petersburg which is across the bay from most of the metro area’s populace. And attendance is continually abysmal, at or near the bottom of the league year after year. TV ratings aren’t wildly exciting either which clouds the answer to whether the stadium is the problem itself.
Over twenty years in, one might think the answer would be to relocate the club. There are a number of cities of sufficient size and probably enthusiasm that could host a Major League club – Charlotte and Las Vegas come to mind quickly. But MLB has been reluctant to let them move away, and Manfred seemed to double down on that. Tampa it is, sink or swim. Until now.
Once again a ridiculous scheme has come forward and is getting a nod of approval from Manfred. that would be to have the Rays split their season between Tampa and… wait for it… Montreal!
Yes, the big idea is that the team could stay and play half the time in central Florida and play the other half of the season up in Francophone Canada. One team, two cities, two countries! What could go wrong?! they want to implement the plan in 2028.
This is flat out one of the dumbest ideas to come out of MLB’s offices yet… and there’ve been some doozies of late.
First off, neither city even has a suitable stadium right now. The plan necessitates both cities building fine new outdoors parks. Tampa’s, as noted, is poorly located and domed, lacking charm while in Montreal, the Olympic Stadium last used for baseball is equally charmless and actually cost the Expos home games in the past due to parts of it crumbling and being a hazard to fans and players alike. Oh yes, if you haven’t been keeping track, Montreal had a MLB team in the past. The Expos were not unlike the Rays… a team which produced many great players and had some good seasons but lagged in attendance before they moved to Washington DC in 2005.
So far, no one’s been able to come up with funding to make a suitable stadium in Tampa. Taxpayers have turned down additional taxes to fund one and big business hasn’t signed on to build one to profit from either. About the same is true in Montreal. Now up there, it’s not entirely implausible to think someone might pony up for a stadium. Bell comes to mind, the main competitor to Rogers in Canada’s tele-communications market. Rogers owns the Toronto Blue Jays and their stadium; one might imagine Bell wanting a piece of that action down the 401 in the country’s “second city.” It’s more difficult to foresee that happening for a team which would only play half a season per year there.
There are a number of minor issues that come to mind – what would the uniforms say, would there be different ones for the Montreal games than the Floridian ones? There are more major issues.
While a high-profile, high salary free agent (think Gerritt Cole type) might play anywhere at all if the paycheque is right, the arrangement might be a significant deterrent to ordinary free agents when picking a team. If you’re a utility player looking to make $1 million a year, do you want to have to rent a condo in one city or two cities out of your cheque? If you’re from say, Mississippi and have small kids, it might be a family upheaval if you play in California or Illinois… do the wife and kids stay at home until the school year ends, move full-time etc. Multiply that by two. I’m guessing the Bi-national Rays wouldn’t be a popular destination of choice for players who had a choice.
Worse yet, the fans. Announcing this dodo plan now is just dense. It’s not going to rev up fans in Quebec. Eight years away seems a lifetime in sport and the whole thing hinges on a stadium appearing out of the blue. And it seems to suggest that they could see mid-summer games (when the climate is nice there and Florida is humid and prone to thunderstorms most days) but if they make the post-season, the games would be in warm-weather Tampa. Yay! We could watch on TV! Even if a few ball fans there get excited, are they likely to cross a national border and travel 1500 miles to patronize Tropicana Field and “their” new team? Hardly.
On the other hand, one can well imagine that the small, but reasonably loyal, Tampa Bay fans will take this like a sucker-punch to the gut. You get to keep your team, but only halfway. You now have friends in another country, mes ami!
Tampa’s done very well on field the past two seasons; last year winning 96 and finishing second in a tough division. Yet attendance was steady at 1.178 million,or about 14 300 a game. that put them 29th out of 30 teams, ahead of only their counterparts further south in the state, Miami. In 2018, yep… the same. 29th out of 30.
The Rays almost always seem to exceed expectations on field. Still, I can’t envision them matching last year’s 96 win tally with Hunter Renfroe as the cleanup hitter, their top pitcher being 36 years old and a catcher who hit .165 last year. but maybe they’ll surprise. What I am more sure of is that they will be hard-pressed to lure even 14 300 fans out per game with this plan floating over them.
“Lead Glove” Manfred strikes again.
No matter which team wins the World Series, one thing is sure: it will be an “old” team, by baseball standards. That’s because the average age of the Washington Nationals is oldest of any MLB team – their players average 30.1 years old. The Houston Astros are third among the 30 rosters, averaging 29.8 years of age. In between them was Oakland, their players averaging 29.9. Following them, Atlanta and the New York Yankees, each 29.5 years old.
On the other hand, we have the Blue Jays. Their average age is 26.8 years old, 27th oldest out of the 30 teams, ahead of only Detroit, San Diego and Baltimore. Does anyone else see a trend there?
The five oldest teams in the game all made the post-season. They averaged 103 wins this season. Of the four youngest, none were better than 4th in their division, and they averaged 59.5 wins a piece. It should put an end to the theory that youth is what wins in baseball these days. Likewise it should make it clear what Toronto needs to do for next season … and it’s not bring in plenty more kids to make their major league debut!
Club president Mark Shapiro recently had a Q&A session with Toronto reporters and he advocated a baseball philosophy that I completely agree with. He told At the Letters that he wants a team with a good mix of players. He said he is “a big believer in looking at different segments of the player population. You need young players…talented young players that give you upside, tons of energy. You need players in their prime…you can bank on (them.) Then you need veteran players. Volatile, they get hurt a lot but they’re the guys that want to win, can handle the pressure better and they’re the guys who make the younger players better.”
Well said, Mark. Houston and Washington both prove those statements out this year as did the Blue Jays World Series teams all those years ago. (Anyone remember Dave Winfield, already in his 40s, and his contribution to the ’92 team?) The path for Toronto this off-season is clear. They already have the young talent, a lot of it in fact. Now is the time to bring in a star pushing 30 years old, or three; and perhaps find a savvy “gray beard” to add maturity to the dugout.
Make sure Ross Atkins is on the same page, Mr. Shapiro, of find someone who is that will do the job.
Speaking of front office types being replaced, what to make of the Astros? As you likely know they fired their Assistant General Manager Kevin Taubman while the GM, Jeff Luhnow, apologized for his behavior about a week after Taubman drew scorn for statements he made. Apparently after the Astros won the AL Championship over New York, during the clubhouse celebration Taubman repeatedly yelled “Thank God we got Osuna!” and added a few profanities. Roberto Osuna had given up a couple of runs in the final game but locked down the save, his third of the post-season to that point. The comments were apparently in the faces of three female reporters present and seemingly were mocking them and concerns over Osuna’s past.
Roberto Osuna, should you somehow have forgotten, is the star reliever who’s career in Toronto was derailed when he was charged with domestic violence early in the 2018 season. The Blue Jays knew a hot potato when they saw one, and dealt him to Houston (for another reliever, Ken Giles) while he was serving a suspension. Former MLB catcher Gregg Zaun told me (during Osuna’s suspension) that he figured fans would rake Osuna over the coals for a long time before forgiving him and that we’d not see him back on the mound during 2018.
Turns out Gregg was wrong about the season. Osuna was activated as soon as possible by the Astros, and actually pitched 23 games for them before season’s end. Zaun might have been more on the money when it comes to fan reactions and memories though. Although a few Astros players initially complained about the trade and Osuna’s presence, they apparently put differences aside and welcomed him in. He had a stellar 2019 season, being nominated for the “Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year” award. (It’s no proud moment that another of the nominees, Aroldis Chapman also had a suspension for a similar charge.)
It raises a number of questions for the game. First off, Osuna was suspended for 75 games although eventually criminal charges against him were dropped. The story suggests his girlfriend wouldn’t testify against him and actually wasn’t going to return to Canada to appear, leaving the “Crown” without much of a case. Baseball on the other hand, apparently did their own investigation talking to police and the victim and decided he was guilty by which they based their penalty, as they’d done before in similar cases including Chapman’s.
I’m a little uncomfortable with that but not entirely. They talked to appropriate people and felt there was an overwhelming suggestion of proof even if a criminal charge couldn’t be won in court. Lawyers will tell you the burden of proof is higher for a criminal case than a civil case so it seems reasonable that baseball should be able to discipline separately from court proceedings, just as they do with players found guilty of drug offences.
Then there’s Taubman. Exuberance and perhaps a bit of beverage-fueled silliness is to be expected in the clubhouse after a team clinches a championship, and an exec singing the praises of a star is a given. However, all present seem to suggest the context in this case was absolutely wrong and taunting the women present, perhaps even applauding Osuna’s violence in a backhanded way. I’m not sure if that moment alone should be enough to cost him his career, when the actual offense itself didn’t cost Osuna his. But I won’t shed any tears for him and am pretty sure should the Nationals pull off their long shot World Series win over Osuna’s Astros, “karma” is going to be a word we hear a lot!
Good pitching beats good hitting, so the old adage goes, and this year it seems especially true…although neither the Astros or Nationals are lacking in hitting, they’ve pitched their way into the World Series.
Sports Illustrated report that Houston are the biggest favorites, based on Las Vegas odds, since Boston in 2004. That was the year the Sox broke the “Curse of the Bambino” and swept Colorado to win their first championship in living memory.
We have to agree. Washington, in the Series for the first time ever, have been something of an underdog sensation making it into the playoffs at the last moment after putting together an 8-game winning streak at year’s end… not bad for a team who won just 19 of their first 50 and were below .500 still on June 26. All while supposedly lamenting the departure of their alleged best player, Bryce Harper. Thankfully Anthony Rendon stepped up and led the league in RBI, last year’s rookie phenom Juan Soto elevated his game and of course, the pitching… Stephen Strasburg had a career year, the type people had been waiting for him to have ever since he first appeared in the majors back in 2010 while Max Scherzer battled a few aches and pains but was dominant when healthy. In the post-season, they’ve already turned heads, beating the heavily favored Dodgers before sweeping St. Louis in the NLCS. Rendon has been hitting .375with 8 runs scored in 10 games and a heady 1.059 OPS; the duo of Strasburg and Scherzer have combined to go 5-0 in 8 appearances (6 starts, each has made an uncharacteristic bullpen appearance too, testimony to their willingness to go all in to win) and have 60 strikeouts through 43 innings. Anabel Sanchez chipped in carrying a no-hitter into the 8th inning of one of his starts too. Patrick Corbin however, their off-season high-profile signing, has struggled with a 7.43 ERA over 5 appearances.
The Astros big trade deadline acquisition, Zac Greinke, has likewise not looked all that sharp, going just 14 innings through 3 starts with a 6.43 ERA, thanks in part to giving up 5 longballs. But it hasn’t slowed Houston down much as they return to the Big show for the second time in three years. Although Justin verlander has looked surprisingly human at times, he deserves his reputation as a “big game pitcher” and Gerritt Cole is as good as any pitcher going. Most of the time, the Astros’ hitting doesn’t need a ton of help anyway as they do what they did through the regular season – put a lot of runs on the board. As always in the post-season, little Jose Altuve comes up big. Not only did he end the ALCS with a walk off homer on Friday, in all this October, he’s hitting .349 with a 1.184 OPS due in no small part to 5 home runs already. Not that atypical for little Jose. Thus far in his career, he’s hit .287 in the post-season ( a little below his career average) but has a .906 OPS, better than his regular season numbers, and has clipped 13 homers in 43 games.
Back in early April, we picked Houston to win 104 games and then win the World Series over St. Louis. Well, the Cards didn’t quite get there (although they irked Cubs fans no small bit by overtaking Chicago in the lategoing days of September to make the post-season) but the Astros won 104, then 3 more and are representing the AL in the World Series. Given their home advantage (and their 60-21 record in Houston this regular season), their pitching, their playoff experience and the “big game” attitudes of Altuve and Verlander, we stick by the April call and say Houston over Washington in 6 games.
Well, a week in and us Blue Jays fans are in a better mood than last year after 7 games! It hasn’t been all sunshine and lollipops for Toronto so far, but getting a split against the Yankees then taking 2 of 3 against the White Sox is quite respectable. As well, we look at the games and see they’re doing some of the things they absolutely must do to compete this year. They’re hitting home runs, as they did last year too, but at times running the bases (see Kevin Pillar’s steal of second, third and even home in one inning against New York!) which was a sore spot last year; the starting pitching has been quite adequate across the board and the bullpen, good. (2.32 ERA in an average of just over 3 innings per game.) Almedys Diaz so far is looking more 2016 All Star rather than 2017 run-of-the-mill (.813 slugging percentage in a very limited sample of 6 games). Pillar and Smoak are hot. All the things are in place for the team to hit the 87 wins I projected and make the playoffs…but let’s remember there’s a lot of baseball to play between now and October.
To finish of the early predictions which I’ve put here the last week or so, let’s take a look at a few more …
AL MVP – Francisco Lindor , Cleveland . if the Indians cruise to their third straight division title, as they should, Lindor stands to win some hardware as voters typically opt for a standout player on a playoff-bound team. At 24,it’s only Lindor’s 4th season and by and large, his trajectory has been nothing but up so far. Although his .273 average last year was off a bit, he hit career highs in doubles (44), homers (33), RBI (89), walks (60) and OPS (.842). He’s hit more balls hard and in the air vs. ground each season, and that trend has continued thus far in the young 2018. Throw in some rather great “D” at short, and he should be obvious. Other playoff teams may have more great players “splitting the vote”.
Runners up – Jose Altuve, Houston , maybe the best player in the game, leading the league’s best team; Mike Trout, LA Angels, because he’s always good and voters like him a whole lot!
AL Cy Young – Chris Sale, Boston two reasons. One he may well be the best pitcher in the AL, if not baseball. Entering his 7th season as a starter, he’s been as dominant as anyone in the past four years, and kept improving over the past three years- 274/233/308 K, ERA of 3.41/3.34/2.90 Last year he averaged almost a striekout and a half an inning, and had his 4th 200 inning year (which a generation ago was nothing but now puts him among the game’s current elite.) His ratio of K’s to BBs was 7:1. So far, although he’s only two starts in, he’s K’d 15 in 11 innings, allowing just one run. If the skinny southpaw stays healthy, don’t be surprised to see a career high of 18 or more wins, an ERA under 2.75 and another Nolan Ryan-like strikeout total. The second reason- as long as he’s in the running, voters may well go the Denzel Washington route. Just like Oscar voters in 2001 gave Washington an Academy award for Training Day, a year most thought he was out-acted and his performance was not one of his greats. Presumably the voters thought he had been overlooked in the past and deserved an award for his body of work. Baseball voters will do the same for Chris if he’s close.
Runners up – Corey Kluber, Cleveland ; Marco Estrada, Toronto (hey, we have to have a dark horse somewhere! I think Marco may have put it all together this year)
and the playoffs-
We already saw I pick LA over Chicago in the National with the Dodgers returning to the World Series therefore.
AL, as we saw in the past two posts, I see Toronto and Boston facing off in the Wild card, then going up against Houston while Cleveland and the Yanks would take on each other in the other ALDS.
Alas, the Sox might beat Toronto at Fenway, especially if they could arrange their pitching to get the aforementioned Sale on the mound for the one game. Either way, the Astros should make short work of eaither team.
I think Cleveland would edge out NY and go on to see Houston. Again, I see the ‘stros being too strong. Therefore…
World Series– once again, Houston vs. LA. And I would think, assuming they’re not suddenly jaded by success, Houston win it all for the second year running.
Well on Day 2 of the season, we’ll shift our gaze westwards and look at the American League’s Central and West divisions.
The long and short of it, the way I see it:
Cleveland 97 65 —
Minnesota 86 76 -11
Chicago 70 92 -27
Kansas City 69 93 -28
Detroit 66 96 -31
Houston 99 63 —
Seattle 84 78 -15
L.A.Anaheim84 78 -15
Texas 75 87 -24
Oakland 69 93 -30
The skinny: Cleveland could actually over-achieve this year, with a schedule thick on weak opponents. Their top of rotation 1-2 of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco is as good as any in the league and the rest of the rote is better than most as well. Francisco Lindor is quickly becoming recognized as up there with Jose Altuve as the best all-around player in the league; third baseman Jose Ramirez might join the ranks this year . He’s 25 and over past 3 seasons his average has gone .219/.312/.318 and his slugging percentage, from a dismal .340 to a rather stellar .583. A bounceback year from Jason Kipnis wouldn’t be surprising, after missing nearly half of last year with injuries. But, as much as I like EE, I think Encarnacion is following his buddy Jose Bautista on the downward slope.I’ll be surprised if he hits .250 or 32 homers this year.
Minnesota were the surprise of ’17, and congrats to Paul Molitor for turning the team around. The addition of Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi to the rotation improves the team, and I’m not alone in thinking Byron Buxton is about to become the superstar everyone projected him as a few years back. Still, Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier have seen better years, the bottom of the rotation is shaky and Fernando Rodney was a risk as a closer back when he was in his prime- which was long ago. They’re not quite there yet, but are a team going in the right direction.
Likewise, the White Sox. Yoan Moncada signals a movement towards good young players, catcher Wellington Castillo was a great addition at, and behind,the plate but there are a lot of holes to be filled. Six years back, I would’ve liked James Shields as the Opening Day pitcher. By now I’d be wary of having him on the roster, let alone the “Ace.”
Heading in the opposite direction, KC. Little remains of their 2015 championship team, and the parts that are there (like Kevin Herrera) are largely on the downward slope. Mike Moustakas is back, of course, and probably disgruntled. I expect him to be moved on elsewhere by the end of July.It’s gonna be a long ninth season on the bench for Ned Yost.
The best new addition to the Tigers is aging manager Ron Gardenhire. No Justin Verlander, no Ian Kinsler. Miggy’s still there, but the future Hall of famer is a very old 34 as he heads into his 16th season. His .249 average and .399 slugging last year were career lows – they’re not going to go up anytime soon (but he doubtless ads a maturity to the young clubhouse.) The Blue Jays look pretty smart with the David Price trade of ’15… neither Daniel Norris nor Matt Boyd look like they’re amounting to much so far but both are in the rotation.
Westwards, hello Harris County! The reigning World Champions look like World Champion repeaters on paper at least. They’ll have timeless workhorse Justin Verlander for the whole season, added a rising star in Gerritt Cole and already had a good rotation. Brad Peacock is bumped to the bullpen, which shows how strong the pitching is. Then there’s multi-time batting champ Jose Altuve, and the likes of Carlos Correa (23) and Alex Bregman (24) who are young still and improving, believe it or not. Even Yuli Gurriel, 33, is possibly not at his peak , given that he’s only had two MLB seasons behind him. The only reason I project Houston to win “just”99 is the possibility of a bit of complacency setting in, or injuries.
Seattle have in recent years always seemed better on paper than on the field, which is why I don’t see them hitting the post-season in 2018. A big comeback from 3B Kyle Seager and one-time superstar “King Felix” could change that. Canadian James Paxton could take over the Hernandez “crown” as king of the mound, if he can stay healthy all year and go past 180 innings.
The Angels may be the most interesting team to watch this year, with their additions and of course, the Japanese sensation, Shohei Ohtani. He’s really the key to the team’s success. He can throw very hard (past 100mph) but was hit hard in spring and may not be just a hurler rather than a real “pitcher” at his young age. Will the power hitters catch up to his speed ? We’ll have to watch and see. Even more of a question, can he hit? Spring training suggested “No”, but he did score a single in the opener. If he’s a flop at the plate, the Angels are in a hard place. He picked their team essentially on a promise of being a regular DH, but what happens if his bat costs them games? There are other problems Anaheim way anyway; although they should score runs, they’ll give up plenty too. whether they opt for a normal 5-man rotation or a new 6-man, the pitching is mediocre at best.
Texas do things big,and with the likes of Nomar Mazara, Adrian Beltre and Joey Gallo, they’ll hit a lot of big flies. But the fielding looks questionable and beyond Cole Hamels…there’s a whole lot of “ifs” on their mound. “If” Mike Minor can come back from all those surgeries, “if” Martin Perez can become more consistent, “if” Tim Lincecum can return to 2011 form (the last time he had an ERA below 4 or limited runners to less than 1.25 per inning) and convert to the bullpen, maybe they won’t be so bad.
Little hope of that inOakland. Jonathan Lucroy was a great addition both in his veteran stature and as an above-average catcher but there’s not a whole lot there to turn one’s head. Not a terrible team, but one that doesn’t stand out in any way at all.
So, later this weekend we’ll look to what we Jays fans care about- the AL East!
OK, I’m feeling a little tardy here; the Jays have already wrapped up their opening series and I’ve not yet posted my AL predictions. So rather than continue to labor away at my rather lengthy and in depth analyses of each team which I’d started on, I’ll give you hear a capsule summary of my outlook for the 2016 American League tallies.
If you wonder about any particular team or my reasoning, drop a line or add a comment and I’ll expand upon it. but for now, let’s agree that the Houston Astros are the top pick of most experts including Sports Illustrated which pick them to win it all (but admit to only having one right pick in the past 20 years.) Do I agree? See for yourself.
Texas 87 wins
Cleveland 88 wins
New York 86
Tampa Bay 69
So we happily project the Jays repeating as division champs, joining the also-repeating Rangers, as well as the Indians and the Tigers hosting either the Yanks or the Tigers in the Wild Card.
We’ll look at how that might play out, as well as the picks for individual bests, next time out!