April 16, 2019 by Darren Clarke (all photos via Wiki Commons)
“Maybe the Death Star doesn’t have to be that big…”
From my forthcoming book, “Things Darth Vader Would Definitely Never Say.”
Coming into this offseason the greater part of breathless MLB speculation was spent on the assumption that the New York Yankees would sign Bryce Harper, who, along with Manny Machado, made up the marquee for offseason free agent drama. We thought that because that is what the Yankees historically do right? Where there is famine they feast, where there is thrift they lavish. We have been conditioned to accept that while others may try, the Yankees get the girl. But not so fast! (or in the case of the new baseball world of- It’s Not Collusion, it’s an Algorithm! Not so slow).
With the Red Sox coming off a World Series and the Yankees appearing on the cusp of regaining Evil Empire status the idea of adding Harper and his mojo to a lineup that already included Judge, Stanton and Sanchez was a tantalizing potential twist to the epic Sox-Yankees rivalry. But we know how the story ends. After months and months of numbingly boring speculation the Empire chose an unexpected brand of modesty. Instead of the the big, big, market teams grabbing the two free agents it was the upstarts, the Rebels- Machado signing in San Diego and Harper, his beard, his tattoos, his swagger, ended up in the other East, the AL East, with Philadelphia.
Instead of adding to the ongoing New York-Boston battle atop the AL East Harper will be featured in a different but no less compelling drama in the National League East where he will face his his still competitive former team in Washington, a young Atlanta Braves team that rose from the ashes to win the division last year and a Mets team that has a top of the rotation to match anybody.
Meanwhile, the AL East, the race for the division title will have a new contender to consider. Alongside the the suddenly pragmatic favourites, the Red Sox and the Yankees, there is the surprising potential attached to the coolest organizational cat in baseball, a team that influenced last years’ playoffs despite not making it there- The Tampa Bay Rays.
Reasons 5 and 6 in this instalment of 8 Reasons to Love Baseball in 2019– The AL East and the NL East.
National League East
Let’s start where the action is, the NL East a division that easily competes with the NL Central for the title of best division in baseball.
“We’re going to be facing each other a lot. This is just the first. Whatever happens on Tuesday, it’s going to be the course of a career of facing him. This is just Round 1.”
Max Scherzer prior to facing Bryce Harper on April 2nd, 2019
And it was fun. Scherzer, in the prime of an elite career, faced Harper in front of a home crowd that was quite willing to play the role of the jilted ex-lover to the hilt. Early results warmed the bitter cockles of Nats fans hearts as Scherzer struck out the flailing Harper in their first two meetings, finishing him off on the second occasion with a knee buckling off speed pitch that Harper swung over top of. The third meeting though saw Harper, once again with two strikes on him, wait on that same breaking ball and this time rip it into right field for a double as Philly went on to route the Nationals in their first meeting.
Suffice it to say, the crowd was unamused.
In fairness though Washington fans have had much to be unamused about over the last year. Washington came into last season favoured to win a division that seemed filled with teams struggling to climb out of various forms of organizational malaise. Washington appeared to have the stars in the field and on the mound to run away with the East.
Then it all went wrong. Which is pretty incredible given, in addition to the lineup they had entering into the season, 19-year old outfielder Juan Soto came up on May 15th and proceeded to carve up the National league pitching for the remainder of the season.
After a disappointing second place finish in their division outside a Wild Card spot, after losing their most identifiable player, Washington appears to be an afterthought in 2019. They shouldn’t be though. Scherzer is still great, Strasburg a high end talent who appears likely to regain the form he showed in 2017, the team added Patrick Corbon as a free agent, a bold and meaningful addition to their rotation and there’s Soto’s gaudy power numbers supported by an extremely advanced feel for the strike zone and ability to make contact- he’s as real as it gets. Meanwhile, though Washington will no doubt miss Harper’s bat they won’t miss him in the field where another great young talent in Victor Robles takes Harper’s reps and makes for a much better outfield for Nats pitchers to watch their fly balls head out to as Soto-Robles and Adam Eaton patrol the green expanse of Nationals Park.
The Nationals aren’t the favourites in the NL East coming into the season, they have issues with overall depth and in their bullpen but it won’t take a whole lot to go right for them to push for the division title/Wild Card Spot heading into fall.
The favourites in the NL East are Atlanta and Philly. Let’s back to the Phillies.
Since winning 102 games in 2011 the Phillies have loitered around the outskirts of Also-Ran-Town. Last year though signaled change as the Phillies fought for the division title with Atlanta before doing a big fade the final month of the season. There was no doubt though that a solid core, a core only pieces away from having a reasonable expectation of competing for a Championship was in place to end 2018.
Start with pitching.
Aaron Nola is a legit ace, Nick Pivetta seemingly everybody’s pick for sexy break out pitcher in 2019 (and with good reason), Jake Arrietta the perfect #3 starter, Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez the best case scenario for the bottom two spots of any rotation with plenty of gas in their repertoire and lots of ceiling in their profile.
Meaningful offseason adds in Philly ably enhance that 2018 core. Harper, who even when he bats in the .240’s is still a run producing juggernaut, catcher JP Realmuto a significant bat at a position that has become almost a barren wasteland of run production, outfielder Andrew McCutchen offers up a pro bat for the top of the order, Jean Segura a significant upgrade at short over square-peg-round-hole Scott Kingery (who serves the team better in reserve right now). These positional adds together with the booming bat of Rhys Hoskins and the still lively possibilities attached to Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco make the lineup one to be feared.
Weaknesses for the Phillies? Gabe Kapler’s desire to overtake the game might cause some trouble, the pen, despite the quality addition of David Robertson is still spotty and there’s that thing, that ambiguous anti-matter that often seems to trip up teams in the immediate aftermath of significant roster upheaval, that often causes so trouble for franchises.
The Braves meanwhile followed up their surprising rise to an NL East title last year with a quieter off season. The big signing for the Braves was Josh Donaldson who, for all his injury issues in Toronto, still looked locked in with the Indians at the end of last season. JD is a special hitter who fits perfectly in front of the heart of the Braves lineup- MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and Rookie of the Year winner Ronald Acuna Jr. There’s more the lineup of course- Albies, the ageless Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and a well conceived of depth chart. Atlanta can score runs. Their pitching though was the strong suit last year and their question mark coming out of spring training.
Last season Mike Foltynewicz was their ace after finally channeling his triple digit heater into high end results, former prospect, perennial tease, Kevin Gausman finally tapped into his possibilities after coming over from Baltimore, Sean Newcomb delivered a solid, if uneven, season, Anibal Sanchez drank from the Random-Career-Rejuvinating fountain and was shockingly fantastic, and young Touki Toussaint brought one of the best names in baseball to the mound as just one of the myriad of young Braves pitchers to crowd the starting pitching possibilities for this season.
This year though Spring Training found Sanchez moved on to Washington, Folty on the DL, Gausman struggling with shoulder issues and Newcomb struggling with remotely locating the strike zone. But here’s why I love the Braves. They have such a deep well of pitching they should be able to overcome the kind of pitching issues that often disables other franchises. When you are slotting a guy with Max Fried’s upside into the rotation as a replacement your organization is in a wonderfully robust spot. When Fried is but one of many options you are in a dream state.
The Braves have three things that makes them favourites in my eyes, 1) A wealth of skilled players in a stable environment that hasn’t undergone a ton of upheaval, 2) Pitching depth that should be the envy of every team around the league, 3) A GM in Alex Anthopolous who is creative enough to adjust to adversity and brave enough to take chances.
Two teams remain in the NL East- The Mets and the Marlins. I’m not talking about the Marlins, nobody is. The Mets though, who have weaved and wobbled over the past years like a drunk who just took a few extra spins around the Dizzy Bat might have somehow wandered into respectability. Watching them march soberly into the season it’s hard to remove all doubt, i.e. elbowing your friend next to you and whispering, “Isn’t that the drunk guy?” but there is a lot to like about the team.
Jacob deGrom. Noah Syndergaard. Steve Matz. Zach Wheeler.
That is an impressive starting four to walk into the season with. That’s a group of four making a cool cinematic entrance in slow motion (kind of like a fast ball from number five starter Jason Vargas). Trading for Edwin Diaz to close out games was a coup (albeit an expensive one) and the offence could be something. It probably won’t be what is necessary to compete, but it could be.
Pete Alonso looks like the real, heavy hitting, deal at first, Brandon Nimmo an on-base machine in center, Michael Conforto looks like he’s a player in right, Wilson Ramos was a nice pickup behind the plate and… well I’m running out. Robinson Cano? Robinson Cano with an upper case question mark. It’s probably not going to be enough.
So the Mets, while walking away from ten dizzy spins around a bat are walking impressively straight, they are unlikely to be nimble enough to win this race.
NL East Prediction
1- Atlanta Braves, 2- Philadelphia Phillies, 3- Washington Nationals, 4- New York Mets, 5- Miami Marlins
The AL East
The American League in general looks like the ruins of a once great civilization. Littered with gutted, wanting, lineups featuring baseball playing suspects (not to mention those convicted of being bad) in starting spots throughout the league leaving many of the ballparks throughout the league looking like they were auditioning to be photographed for #Abandonedplaces Instagram feeds.
Near my home in Toronto the Jays were offering $5 beer and other ball park fare (which of course turned out to be in, “limited supply”) in a move as monumental and desperate as a down on his luck Wayne Newton offering tours of his ranch for money or Carrot Top doing, whatever it is exactly that he does, in Vegas.
There are exceptions of course- in Houston, in New York, Boston (maybe), and perhaps surprisingly, in Tampa.
Tampa Bay, particularly the idea of the Tampa Bay team, is currently situated in the MLB Zeitgeist like Ryan Reynolds’ character Connell in the wonderful, coming-of-age-working-at-a cheesy-fun-park-one-summer-in-the-80s movie, Adventureland.
Reynolds character Connell is the older, supposedly wiser, cool, fun park ride mechanic/musician who reportedly once played with Lou Reed. He’s married and of course getting it on with the beautiful girl that the younger, more naive, protagonist, James Brennan (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is in love with. Everybody wants to be Connell. Everybody wants to be that kind of cool.
Which is where Tampa Bay comes in.
You can see the high esteem Tampa is held in around MLB by the opportunities being provided to members of their organization inclusive of their AL East rival, the Blue Jays, hiring Charlie Montoyo as their new manager. Still with Toronto, Jays reporter Scott Mitchell told TSN 1050 radio before the season that the teams’ approach to rebuilding was designed to be a hybrid between Houston and Tampa. Oakland used the Rays, “Opener,” strategy for their wildcard game in the playoffs last year (which didn’t go well) and the Brewers used it throughout their Cinderella playoff run last October (where it did go well).
As much as I’d like to, I can’t discredit what the Rays did last year in getting 90 wins with 17 different pitchers starting games for them. They milked productive innings from some really unexceptional players, particularly Ryan Yarbrough who managed 16 wins. But I wonder if we are simply not recognizing how great Blake Snell was. Tampa was 22-9 in games he started. Take away Blake Snell and what are we really talking about here? A 68-63 team. Still good (and in fairness, take away any team’s top starter out of their record and the result is obviously overtly negative) but what’s the real story here? Ryan Yarbrough or Blake Snell? Clearly it’s Blake Snell. That, that is what you want. Still, somehow we give more credit for the marginal, unconventional, driver, than the more impactful, more conventional, push.
Here is where you get to the rub with Connell and the idea of Rays. The phenomenon hasn’t amounted to much really. The Rays haven’t won a World Series, they didn’t make the playoffs last year, their attendance is awful and they sold exactly 0 jerseys with “Opener” sewn on the back. And yeah, sure, the MLB’s most miscast Monster Truck Palladium/Baseball Stadium- Tropicana Field, plays a part in that but so too does the seeming disdain for identifiable players.
As James Brennan discovered by the end of Adventureland Connell never really played with Lou Reed and would more than likely simply continue to be employed as an aging mechanic at a theme park pretending to be something he wasn’t.
But if you are I are hoping for the Rays influence to recede this ain’t the year. This year the opportunity for Tampa Bay has never been greater. The AL East currently finds the Jays and Orioles razed to the ground appearing years away from reaching even the basics of the Tampa blue print they are following. Awful teams abound throughout the league alongside Baltimore and Toronto in Kansas City, Detroit, with middling/flawed teams playing in LA, Texas, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, Minnesota and even Cleveland.
In short it’s another good year to be Ryan Yarbrough.
A basic premise we sometimes miss is that somebody has to win games. Kansas City and Detroit are both bad teams but when they matchup they both can’t lose. Put six bad poker players at a table and somebody has to win. It doesn’t mean the winner of that poker game is that smart or even that much smarter than the other five guys, nor does it mean you would want to copy their tactics, yet that is largely how it is perceived. Often, along with the spoils, to the victor goes more credit than they are due.
To that point the Rays path to the playoffs this year will not be defined by their more unorthodox approaches but instead by the more conventional ones. They have some very good baseball players. Austin Meadows start is no accident, he’s that good, young shortstop Willy Adames can play the whole game, second baseman Brandon Lowe (who once almost killed me with a home run while I was leaning on the right field wall at Coca Cola Field in Buffalo, drinking an IPA, chatting about something unrelated to the game with a friend) is for real, Kevin Kiermaier a sublime centerfielder who almost doesn’t have to hit to be immensely valuable but when right does provide some offensive upside anyways, Tommy Pham is a solid run producer… I mean, this is the funny thing about Tampa, what they are doing a lot of the time, what will really drive their success, isn’t all that crazy, in fact it’s down right old school- They have a lot of guys who play good defence, make contact, get on base playing behind a really solid pitching staff.
Signing Charlie Morton and his lively assortment of pitches was a nice move for Tampa and the acquisition of Tyler Glasnow was bold, a bit risky, but for me, a great bet. Acquiring Glasnow came at the cost of Chris Archer who at age 30 had become a player whose great stuff was increasingly trending away from great results. Glasnow is 24, he’s 6’8″, he’s a lefty. And those guys sometimes take a bit longer to get to know their body well enough to translate their potential in real dominant results. So the top three of the roation- Snell, Morton, Glasnow, matches up with anybody and even Yonny Chirinos as the number four starter is pretty good. And that starting staff has a very good bullpen backing them up.
So maybe this is the year the Tampa overcomes the Yankees and the Red Sox, maybe this is the year Conner really gets to play on Lou Reed’s, “Satellite of Love.”
Back to the Death Star.
The Yankees and the Red Sox
I’m not a big Star Wars guy so this Evil Empire thing is going to get limited play here but it’s worthy of noting that for some reason the bad guys in Star Wars had a bad habit of having a fundamental weakness, a fatal flaw, always available to be exploited. Just when you thought they were unbeatable somebody discovered that one small thing could defeat even their most grandiose designs.
In this decade no big market team has shown how easily a great team can suddenly falter than the Red Sox inclusive of following up their 2013 World Series with a 71-win season in 2014. Things can go wrong fast even for the big market teams with established players.
Weeks into this season the Yankees and Red Sox are wallowing around Toronto and below Baltimore in the AL East standings. They won’t stay there but it’s worthy of note that these teams are not immune to being impacted by fate and circumstance or limitations in roster design. Let’s look at the Yankees to begin with.
The Yankees bad start is mostly about injuries. Didi Gregorious with rotator cuff surgery last year carrying over to this season, Luis Severino with shoulder issues, Gary Sanchez banged up, Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Andujar, Greg Bird (though it can’t be much of a surprise), Aaron Hicks, Dellin Betances (though, I could have saved us some time and said simply the Yankees have so many injuries Gio Urshela is starting at third base right now).
They are a mess. But they are still the favourite to win the division.
I don’t know why the Yankees didn’t sign Bryce Harper, if you are going to be the bad guy in a story, do it right. Put your damn black hat on. And it strikes me that in looking to indulge in value signings like DJ Lemahieu or Troy Tulowitski, in checking a few of the school-of-the-new-cool boxes may have just put themselves in jeopardy of being beaten by the Rays. But make no mistake, they are still a really well conceived team. Aaron Judge and Stanton are going to knock a lot of hand crafted Rawlings baseballs out of that band box of a park into the meaty hands of entitled Yankees fans. Gleyber Torres is a special young player, Gregorious when he returns is made for Yankee Stadium’s short fences, the bullpen is an almost overwhelming collection of dominant relievers and the rotation, however it shakes out, should be good enough to get them past the Red Sox and Rays. Tanaka has his heater hitting 95 and even without that he’s a very good pitcher, James Paxton has elite stuff, JA Happ and CC Sabathia will figure out how to get enough people out over five or six innings to be effective.
Still, there’s only so much bad luck a team can take before they reach a tipping point. Which brings us to Boston.
The slow start in Boston is less about injuries and more about the fate attached to continually acquiring low ceiling possibilities. There’s only so many, “team guys,” you can acquire before you are not a good team. Christian Vasquez is the catcher, he can’t hit, Jackie Bradley Jr is a thrill to watch play defence but he is severely limited at the plate, Mitch Moreland is a replacement level first baseman, Rafael Devers a 22-year old in a 40-year olds body, Dustin Pedroia, God Bless him, seems done, Eduardo Nunez appears to be on the decline and the pitching suddenly appears mortal starting with their ace Chris Sale whose ERA of 9.00 through three starts is one thing, his significant decline in velocity entirely more troubling. Nathan Eovaldi after starring in last year’s playoffs for the Sox has struggled to find the same form causing optimistic Red Sox fans to have a second look at his larger body of work which does not contain a single special season. Again though, instead of me going on at length about the rotations early struggles let me just say that everybody but David Price has been a punching bag this year for Boston and everybody but the erratic Eduardo Rodriguez is at least 30-years old (and given Rodriquez’s lengthy injury history he might as well be 30).
When you limit yourself to low ceilings at enough positions it doesn’t take much to go wrong (like your ace losing 4 MPH on his fastball) for the roof to come tumbling down.
There’s still reason to hope in Boston- you have Mookie Betts who is as good an all-around player as you will see (I don’t care which team you cheer for, if you don’t like Mookie Betts you don’t like baseball), JD Martinez is a perennial Top 5 producer at the plate, Xander Boegarts is special, Anthony Benentendi as well. But I’m betting it won’t be enough. That the clearly weak bullpen combined with the limitations built into the roster and the chinks in the rotation will bring Boston past the tipping point and into something more resembling the 71-win season of 2014 than the World Series of last year.
Beyond the big three in the division Baltimore, a team arguably still not at Point A in their rebuild, isn’t worth talking about, while Toronto, a team further along in their rebuild is.
I went over how much I loathed Toronto’s lazy, passive, path to being forced into a lazy, passive, rebuild in the last instalment of this series but it bears mentioning that they present possibilities that in this AL world of somebody has to win. Those possibilities might just get them to be more competitive than we think. Aaron Sanchez when he can throw his curve ball is as good a pitcher as there is in the league, Marcus Stroman is a solid #3/4 guy, Matt Shoemaker circa 2019 is legitimately a very good pitcher who doesn’t walk many guys and can miss bats and Trent Thornton has enough gas and movement on his pitches to surprise the AL. That’s not a bad start.
The bullpen is understaffed, the players in the field a whacky collection of what might be best summed up by Art Bergmann in his line from the song Bound for Vegas, “I’m a never was trying to be a has been, has been on the comeback trail,” but there might be enough there and on the way to give them some traction for modest success as the season progresses. Vlad Guerrero Jr. as suspect a third baseman as he may be was ready to rake MLB pitchers last year. There’s not too much hype for that bat. Bo Bichette should be in the infield sooner rather than later and there’s enough prospects with real potential in the system to sift through to find a competitive team in the near future. For now it’s a team in flux, with the likes of Socrates Brito and Alen Hanson sucking up at bats in front of thousands of empty seats at the Rogers Centre.
Here’s what I love about the two Eastern divisions. The potential narratives are rich with dramatic possibilities- Could the World Series champs fall from grace? Could Bryce Harper’s new team be beaten by Bryce Harper’s old team? Could Tampa pull the David vs Goliath trick and overcome the Yankees along with the Red Sox? Could injuries to the Yankees make the best team in New York the Mets? Could a potential Phillies-Yankees World Series meeting end with Brian Cashman cutting off Bryce Harper’s hand and telling him, “Bryce, I am your father?”
AL East Prediction
1- New York Yankees, 2- Tampa Bay Rays, 3- Boston Red Sox, 4- Toronto Blue Jays, 5- Baltimore Orioles