MLB Postscript — The Offseason, HOF and Teams to Watch

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The MLB offseason is barely two days old and I’m already jonesing for more baseball.

It’s that transitional time of year for sports fans, when we turn attention away from the Fall Classic and dig deeper into College Football and the NFL.

Pro football presents a problem for me at the season’s virtual midpoint, since the teams I follow most closely are all terrible (the Jets are at the top of the NYC/Bay Area football food chain, at a mighty 3-5), and I haven’t developed strong rooting interests, for or against, across the rest of the league. I suppose that’s what November is for.

On the college front, I’ll continue to pay attention, but I struggle with Alabama seemingly head and shoulders above every other team in the country. Rooting for USC to become bowl-eligible, or for James Madison University to get back to the FCS Final is hardly going to keep me on the edge of my chair. Sadly, that’s about all I have left to hold my interest while we wait for the playoff combatants to be announced.

And I’m just not feeling hoops yet, although I have to give credit to the Warriors for winning October (I still don’t see a cake walk to a three-peat for the Dubs, though). Hats off to Klay Thompson in particular, for donning that throwback headband while setting the new mark for threes in a game last night. For me, the NBA really doesn’t become relevant until their all-day Christmas programming, after which the Knicks can begin thinking about their 2019 draft position and we can see who LeBron picks to finish up the year as Lakers coach.

Which brings me back to baseball. Two days into the Hot Stove season and there are already a multitude of stories brewing, led by the two big-name free agents out there, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Before diving into that one, though, I do believe that it is worth noting that Machado accomplished what had once seemed the impossible this postseason — he relegated Harper’s status to that of only the second-biggest asshole hitting free agency this offseason. Wow — at least Manny accomplished something this October.

So in no particular order, here are a few of the stories I look forward to seeing play out between now and pitchers/catchers reporting in February, along with a few of the teams that I believe will be the most interesting to track during the winter months:

*What about Bryce and Manny? Well Harper’s agent Scott Boras sounded the official gun for the race to free agency yesterday, when he announced that his client’s destination was already settled. Okayyy… Boras, never known as much of a slapstick guy, must have been joking (there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I suppose), since otherwise he’d be open to tampering charges. Regardless, Harper will be breaking the bank somewhere this winter. I’m still sticking with my call from the end of the season, and plugging him into the three-hole in an Angels lineup that will include Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani (must see TV for the good people of Anaheim).

The Angels are in that horrible baseball purgatory, where they are just good enough not to tank, but still miles away from the top. So, write another enormous check and hope for the best, Arte Moreno, at least batting practice will be entertaining. But we can’t count out the Yankees either (although I wonder who plays center in a Harper in pinstripes scenario), or the usual suspects with money to burn, like the Phillies, Dodgers, Cubs or (and here’s one to shudder over, AL fans) Astros.

Manny? He’ll get paid, but I’m putting the cost of his disastrous postseason at three years and nearly $100 million down from where the market sat before we got to see his tired act up close and personal. His best hope is that the Yankees remain interested, and with Didi Gregorius injured, the Bronx storyline makes sense, but does it really? I just can’t see Yankees GM Brian Cashman and his new, young core of earnest, hard working, positive clubhouse types like Gregorius and Aaron Judge, welcoming the anti-“Johnny Hustle” into the fold.

I’m sticking with my original call here, as well, and putting Manny in Atlanta, where he can “mentor” (there’s a term to start worrying about, Bravos fans) Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies. As much as Machado has hurt himself this month, it doesn’t change the fact that he represents big power numbers, is only 26, and is a huge force in the middle of the order. Adding him to all that young talent in Atlanta raises the Braves from the category of “up and comer,” all the way to front runner, staring down the Cubs and Dodgers from a talent standpoint.

*Did the Mets really just sign an agent to be their GM? The answer, as any self-respecting Mets fan will tell you, is “of course they did.” Here’s hoping they catch lightning in a bottle with this hire, and I’m sure they “won the press conference” this afternoon (a skill  shared by the equally hopeless Knicks and Jets, I painfully note), but c’mon!! Is Brodie Van Wagenen a metrics guy or a scouting guy? Well, we can’t answer that, because he doesn’t even know yet. And he inherits that three-headed dragon of incompetency that weighs the organization down from the top — Minaya, Ricciardi and Ricco — along with his predecessor’s manager, who appeared badly overmatched for much of the 2018 season. What was Brodie thinking? I want to be positive about the new GM, but why do the Mets always have to make everything…so…darn…hard?

And the Mets will (yet again) forsake the rebuild to try and win now, behind their premier starting rotation, healthy and coming off a promising year. Haven’t heard that refrain before, have we? At a minimum, let’s hope that Van Wagenen realizes that if the plan is to win behind a team built on pitching, he may want to sign a few guys that can field their position well, and then insist that Mickey Callaway actually plays them at their natural position. No more midseason experiments where we tell a shortstop he’s a right fielder. Please, promise us, Brodie. Oh yeah, and give your old agency a going away present by signing Jacob deGrom long-term before Christmas. The last thing any of us need is to start the New Year with the headlines being about how the reigning Cy Young award winner is unhappy with the uncertainty around his contract status and his importance to the organization.

*Can the Red Sox break the trend and repeat in 2019? Heck no. Enjoy the party Bosox fans, and I’ll eat crow all winter for repeatedly comparing the 2018 champs to the “all regular season hat, no postseason cattle” 2001 Mariners. But the reality of the situation is, no one repeats in MLB. Each of the last two winters we’ve all had to endure giddy fans of the Cubs and Astros tell us how their respective championship clubs were built to dominate for years on end, and that we might as well hand them the Commissioners Trophy as soon as pitchers and catchers finish unpacking in February. Not so fast. These Red Sox are young, talented and deep (yup, like the Cubs were two years ago, and the Astros last winter), and they are built to contend for quite some time, but they won’t win it next year. Next question.

*How did Jacob deGrom as Cy Young become a foregone conclusion? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to find anyone around the league currently disputing that not only is deGrom deserving of the award, but will win it easily. This is the same deGrom that most felt needed a “W” in his last start of the year to cement himself simply as a viable contender, right? Well he got that win, and then the reality of his excellence began to seep into the national news.

I’d have an easier time calling him a lock if there were no other deserving candidates out there, but Max Scherzer went 18-7 with 300 K’s this year for basically a .500 club. I’m sure that to a certain extent the voters are tired of seeing Scherzer take home the hardware, but those numbers are nothing to ignore. Which makes deGrom’s run all the more awe-inspiring. Consider the following stats posted in 2018 by the Mets ace:

-1.70 ERA

-269 strikeouts

In his 9 losses,  he had a 2.71 ERA, 10.3 K’s/9 and only allowed 4 HR’s

-.91 WHIP (for the stat heads)

-.196 batting average against

And he was one of the few standup guys in the Mets clubhouse this year. In fact, most Mets fans would have preferred to see deGrom with a bat in his hand and runners in scoring position than 90% of the orange and blue position players. So strike one for those who want less attention paid to wins and losses, and more to advanced stats. Bottom line, deGrom was the best pitcher in baseball in 2018, and it appears the awards folks are going to get this one right.

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*Who joins Mariano Rivera in the Hall of Fame next summer? I am not a fan of relievers in the HOF, except under exceptional circumstances. I wasn’t on board with Trevor Hoffman getting in last year (more on my aversion to the Hall of Very Good‘s lowered standards in a second), and beyond Rollie Fingers, Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage (everybody loves Goose), I’m hard pressed to believe any other relievers truly belong.

Until now. As far as I’m concerned, you could have fast tracked Mariano’s induction on the day the Yankees’ closer announced his retirement. Class act on and off the field, consistent over SEVENTEEN YEARS at “best in the sport” levels, and multiple championship rings (painful admission) make this decision an easy one. The hard part? Who to induct along with him.

If it were up to me (and I don’t have a vote, but desperately want one), Rivera would go in alone, as I can’t see anyone being worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest closer in history and not somehow sully this summer’s ceremony. But we live now in a world where many voters believe that because they have ten slots on their ballot, they must pick ten inductees. And frankly, I’m worried that some undeserving candidates make the cut and join number 42 on stage this summer in what is fast becoming a watered down and overcrowded “exclusive” club.

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For example, there seems to be a growing groundswell of support for Roy Halladay’s Cooperstown candidacy, intensified by the timing of his tragic death earlier this year. While sad, it shouldn’t mean putting aside standards for an underserving entrance into the Hall of Fame. When Thurman Munson died in 1979, there was initially a similar outcry for his induction. Ultimately saner heads prevailed, and while Munson will always have a special place in Yankees fans’ hearts (not to mention Monument Park), he wasn’t HOF-worthy. And neither is Doc, who had an outstanding ten-year run in his prime, spent mostly in the quiet of Toronto, before gaining some acclaim as a true stopper and stud after moving to the Phillies later in his career (although it should be noted that he was not on the Phils World Series team of 2008, arriving in the City of Brotherly Love in 2010). Only the great Roberto Clemente has ever warranted tragedy fast forwarding an induction, and it should remain that way, hopefully forever.

While Halladay should undoubtedly be recognized as a really good pitcher who didn’t make the Hall, he’s not the only one. There is a similar outcry of support for Rivera’s “Core 4” cohort, Andy Pettitte, to join him this summer in Cooperstown.

Pettitte was another great pitcher who falls just short of Hall of Fame immortality. Rarely was he even the best pitcher on his own staff, while accumulating tons of innings and wins for all those terrific Yankees teams of the ’90’s and 2000’s. Yes, he has a lengthy postseason resume supporting his way-above-average regular season stats, however again, much of that was by virtue of being a long-tenured cog of that never-ending Yankees Dynasty. He had seven years that could be called “outstanding” in his 18-year career, arguably three fewer than Halladay enjoyed during his own run of excellence.

Jeter? No brainer as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Rivera? Lock. Pettitte? Great pitcher, but not Hall-worthy. And before anyone can bring him up, Jorge Posada shouldn’t make it either. Monument Park will have to do for these two Yankees icons, who amassed impressive career numbers, but should be on the outside looking in when it comes to Cooperstown (there is no Hall of Very Good).

How about a few teams to keep an eye on this winter?

*Yankees: Yeah, it always seems to start here, doesn’t it? As much as I dislike the Evil Empire and pretty much everything associated with them, I must admit they always make things more interesting. A year ago no one would have guessed they’d end up with Giancarlo Stanton, and there he was hitting two dingers for the Yanks on opening day.  Given the opening, the always-win-now Yankees will go for the jugular. What do they do this offseason? Well, one has to wonder if Hal Steinbrenner will conjure up memories of his dad and go for broke after watching their arch rivals win yet another 21st Century World Series Title (Red Sox 4, Yankees 1 — or 2, if we count the year 2000, not sure the ruling there). The Yanks have a need for starting pitching (an annual need), at shortstop, and maybe in the outfield (I know Yankees fans are in love with Aaron Hicks, but as someone who roots against the Bombers, I never sweat too much when I see Hicks up in a key spot). Machado? Harper? I’m certain the Yankees will do something, and usually that something amounts to big news. Can’t wait.

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*A’s: I saw a Power Ranking for MLB the day after the World Series concluded, and the A’s weren’t even in the Top 10. Yes, we all agree that Oakland played beyond our expectations (and probably their own) in 2018, but there is a lot of young talent on this team. And the A’s just announced extensions for Head of Baseball Operations Billy Beane, his GM David Forst, and manager Bob Melvin, signaling security, at least in the short run, that could spur the usually cash-strapped franchise to make some moves. For starters, let’s welcome C.C. Sabathia aboard and bring the big lefty back home to Oakland. His outsized personality is a perfect fit for this misfit franchise, and he still gets guys out with his assortment of mid-80’s slop. Sabathia is the perfect veteran to lead a staff back to the postseason. Give him a two-year deal and then we can begin the debate over whether he is Hall of Fame-worthy (or just very good). Other Oakland signings will likely come from the bargain bin, where Beane reigns supreme, but the premier free agents aren’t going to subject themselves to decrepit Oakland Coliseum. This is a team that approached 100 wins during their 2018 run, and should they reach the playoffs again in 2019, will not wilt under the pressure.

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*Cubs: Are we witnessing a club in decline, or just one that needs some retooling around a strong core? I’m going with the latter, because having Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to build around will take a club pretty far in today’s big leagues. I’m also advocating for Yu Darvish to make a triumphant return in 2019, doing his best David Price imitation and leading the Cubs back to the top of the NL Central and postseason success. I mean, the guy didn’t forget how to pitch, and with that lineup behind him I’m ready to sign him up right now for 15 wins at the top of the rotation. Add a closer at the winter meetings and maybe one of the high profile free agents (this is a major market club, remember, with deep, deep pockets — Bryce Harper, anyone?), and this is a 100-win ball club again. Stay tuned, as here’s betting the Cubbies are big players this winter.

*Dodgers: If there’s a silver lining coming out of their World Series loss, it’s that at least now they won’t resign Manny Machado. Will they? Gosh, I can’t imagine that, especially with Corey Seager likely back healthy at some point in the spring. But starting with the Clayton Kershaw decision (I’m guessing he does NOT opt out, and that the Dodgers have to add a couple of years to his current deal), and then assuming the plugging of some obvious holes in the rotation, this team remains as talented as any club in the National League. And yes, they have a lot of money, too, and a festering desperation after two consecutive runner up finishes, to finally shake that whole “title drought” storyline with a championship all their own. The Dodgers can’t stand pat, and that’s good for baseball, too.

So to recap — Harper to the Angels, Machado to the Braves, Sabathia to the A’s, and Rivera to the Hall of Fame — by himself. The Red Sox won’t repeat and don’t count out the A’s and Cubs. 2018 was a heck of a season, and with all of these storylines and more out there, the Hot Stove League is likely to be equally fascinating.  Play ball!

(Agent as GM? Never will work, just ask Bob Myers and the Warriors…)

 

 

 

 

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