5 Stories From the First Two Months of the 2017 MLB Season

May is winding down, and it’s the time of year when hot streaks need to start being taken seriously and you  can no longer ignore that Ervin Santana is the best pitcher in the AL or the fact that Aaron Judge appears to be the reincarnation of Frank Thomas. Here are five of the most notable stories from the first two months of the 2017 MLB season.

Aaron Judge Electrifies the Bronx

The Yankees rookie phenom has a been a shot in the arm for a previously moribund (by Yankees standards) franchise. Judge’s dynamic personality and the thrill of his tape measure home runs has not only make the Yankees fun again, but has planted him as a front runner for AL Rookie of the Year and squarely in the thick of the MVP race. In limited action last year, Judge was plagued by the typical flaws of big, tall hitters. A large strike zone and poor plate discipline made him susceptible to a high strike out rate and a batting average that even Mario Mendoza would have turned up his nose at.

This season, with improved plate discipline and a more patient approach, Judge has terrorized pitchers across the American League and made the Yankees into the most exciting team in baseball, spurring the Bronx Bombers to first place in the AL East. Time will tell if the pitching will hold up for an October run, but the villains of baseball are officially back, and much earlier than expected to boot. The heaps of young talent in both the Yankees and the Red Sox organizations indicate a bright future for one of the most storied and bitter rivalries in all of sports.

Houston Reaps the Fruits of their Labor

To be completely honest, I’m not sure exactly why Houston owns the best record in the American League. Jose Altuve is playing fantastic, to be sure, and the defense certainly runs a tight ship, but there are a concerning number of red flags for a team that has the best record in baseball.

Carlos Correa, rookie phenom of 2015, looked poised to take the league by storm and lead the next generation of great shortstops. Correa certainly hasn’t been bad by any stretch of the imagination-we’re not looking at Bobby Crosby here-but his performance and potential has been relegated from transcendent to slightly above average.

I would be remiss not to mention the terrific season that Marwin Gonzalez is enjoying. Josh Reddick, too, is playing great. But Cuban import Yulieski Gurriel has been average, Alex Bregman has yet to live up the the hype, and Carlos Beltran is showing his age.

Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young Award in 2015, then pitched like your average fifth starter in 2016. He’s back to the Cy Young level this year, and thank goodness for it, because their rotation is thinner than a papercut behind him and Lance McCullers. The best thing you can say about Charlie Morton is “he’s not the worst”, and he can thank the Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers for that, both of whom have been dreadful.

The key to their success has been their lockdown bullpen, which has been performing at a historic rate. Houston has suffered for many years following the era of the Killer B’s-they are finally getting the chance to cash in on all those high draft picks.

Mike Trout Toils in Obscurity

The best baseball player in the world plays in the second biggest market in the United States. He has been compared to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, two of the greatest baseball players who have ever graced this earth.

And nobody ever talks about him.

Oh sure, ESPN throws him a bone every once in a while and he wins the MVP award once every couple seasons. Most of Mike Trout news consists of “Yep, he’s still really good. Probably still better than Bryce Harper, too.” Yet for all of his immeasurable talent-the power and grace that makes a very hard game seems very easy-Mike Trout has little to no impact on the general state of baseball or the outcome of each MLB season.

It’s a constant battle in the sports world to stay relevant-the NFL, the top dog for a long time, must fight off the increasing pressure mounting as a result of the danger of concussions. Warriors-Cavs III in a rubber match makes for the most compelling NBA rivalry since Bird-Magic. Baseball has been seeking to make itself more entertaining and fast paced, with the implementation of pitch clocks. The MLB’s biggest ace in the hole right now is Trout, who should be front and center of all things baseball. Trout is the the absolute prime of his career and his exploits should be regaled with the same level of attention that Brady or LeBron receive. Perhaps more, because, have we mentioned he’s only 25?

But Trout is stuck on a team playing second fiddle in the LA market, the Angels being just bad enough to be totally irrelevant for the foreseeable future and recent memory, and not bad enough to land another star player in the draft to help Trout. In baseball, it’s much tougher for one player to mask a team’s flaws, not to mention that the rebuilding process takes longer because draft picks take longer to develop. The man hits with zero protection in the lineup and still mashes. The best player in the world has absolutely no impact on the results of every MLB season.

I hope he likes pinstripes.

The Brewers and Twins are Good Now, Everybody

Hooray for the upper Midwest!

Safe to say no one saw this coming. The Eric Thames experiment in Milwaukee has been an unequivocal success, and Ervin Santana is pitching as well as he ever has in Minnesota, and I was surprised to find out he’s been quietly excellent ever since his last awful season in the City of Angels. Former Number 1 prospect Byron Buxton is playing like Aaron Hicks, and by that I mean “couldn’t hit water if he fell off a boat but will catch anything in the ballpark and probably hose them at third too” Twins version of Aaron Hicks and not “suspiciously really good really fast” Yankees version of Aaron Hicks. He’s already valuable due to his defense, and if his bat ever catches up like many have long predicted it will, he’ll be an All Star. Miguel Sano has been straight up abusing baseballs this year in the box and just about adequate at third, which any baseball team will take ten times out of ten.

Travis Shaw is good now for the Brewers, and catchers Manny Pina and Jeff Bandy have combined to hit .292 with seven homers, excellent production from behind the dish. The pitching is uh, suspect, for the Brewers, especially because apparently Matt Garza is not bad now/the best pitcher they’ve got, recent history suggest that’s an untenable position. He was a good-to-very-good pitcher before the past two seasons, so it’s possible he has rediscovered his mojo, but his age makes that a risky assumption, especially with his recent injury concerns.

Both teams have been feel-good stories for 2017, but the Indians and Cardinals, two teams with established track records and pennant race experience, are hot on their respective tails. Even if the fast starts fizzle, the rapid rise of both these franchises has reignited baseball fever up North.

The Blue Jays are Not Good, and Probably Won’t be For a While

Speaking of up north, the Blue Jays went to the ALCS in back to back years on the power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion each of the previous two years, and are now mired in the depths of mediocrity.

Similarily, the Giants were one bullpen collapse away from pushing the Cubs to Game 7 (and about 30 bullpen collapses-I wish I was joking-from being among the best teams of the past five years) and are now attempting to claw their way back into contention after a Murphy’s Law start to the season.

The Blue Jays cashed out in 2015-adding Josh Donaldson, David Price, and Troy Tulowitzki, at no small cost. Now, with Encarnacion and Price gone, Bautista in decline, and Tulowitzki injured (what else is new), the Jays are staring at a rebuilding era a little quicker than they’d hoped, and with a dearth of prospects to do it with.

The Giants outlook was equally as bleak before a recent hot stretch, having emptied their cupboards for Matt Moore, Will Smith, and Mike Leake in recent seasons and failing to refurbish them in quite some time. Christian Arroyo, the system’s top prospect, has been called up and has shown a knack for timely hitting, though he’s struggling overall, his batting average narrowly eclipsing .200.

Two of the best teams in recent memory are suddenly afterthoughts, an important reminder to the rest of the league to savor success while it lasts.

 

MLB All-Time Team-A long overdue sequel

The title says it all.

Third Base-George Brett

Brett’s balance outweighs Mike Schmidt’s power (548 home runs) and Brooks Robinson’s defense (16 Gold Gloves.)

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Shortstop-Derek Jeter

Sixth all time in hits, 35 ahead of Honus Wagner and countless ahead of Ernie Banks. That spot among the all time greats, plus the five rings, nets him this spot.

Image result for derek jeter jump throw

Second Base-Rogers Hornsby

It was a different era, but a .358 career average (second only to Ty Cobb), plus 301 home runs (surprising), and the historically weak offense that has accompanied second basemen throughout history makes this a fairly easy selection.

First Base-Lou Gehrig

Disease robbed us of one of baseball’s greatest players of all time. It’s a testament to his ability that his numbers stand up with the all time greats despite being forced to retire early due to ALS.

Catcher-Johnny Bench

Mike Piazza’s steroid suspicions and uninspiring defense assure Johnny Bench this spot.

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(Doug McWilliams/National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

The Rotation

Nolan Ryan, RHP-ESPN’s biggest error of their list in my opinion. The All-Time strikeouts leader didn’t crack their top ten right handed pitchers of all time, but he’ll be the Opening Day starter here.

Randy Johnson, LHP-Mixing righties and lefties is strategically sound, not to mention Johnson’s impressive numbers of his own. At 6’10, he would have made a fine power forward but was unhittable as a pitcher. During the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s, where he still possessed the ridiculous stuff of his youth yet had also learned to control it, there was simply no one better. He once averaged 13.4 strikeouts per nine innings. As a starter, that’s unfathomable.

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(Ronald C. Modra, Sports Illustrated)

Cy Young, RHP-Weird ball, different era. Wins are vastly overrated as a statistic and an inaccurate measure of a pitcher’s success. Still, 511 wins and the namesake of the award given to the best pitcher in each league can’t be ignored.

Sandy Koufax, LHP-Tempting to go with Steve Carlton due to longevity, but I firmly believe that in his prime, Sandy Koufax was the best left handed pitcher ever. Injuries forced him out of the game at age 30, yet he left twice the impression in half the time of most Hall of Famers.

Tom Seaver, RHP-Tom Terrific rounds out the back end of this rotation. Numbers, longevity, and a wicked fastball.

Bullpen

Were this team to ever need to get a clutch save, there’s only one man for the job-Mariano Rivera.

Image result for mariano rivera

How many rings do you have, Mo?

The MLB All Time Team-Outfielders

ESPN recently did a series where they ranked the top 10 players of all time at each respective position. Now, it’s normal for there to be some dissension between fans and writers-it’s simply in the nature of the game. It’s also difficult to compare players from different eras. Rod Carew once won the batting title hitting under .300, and it’s difficult to judge anything from the dead ball era, because baseball was just funky back then. Players did things you just don’t see now, and I find it hard to believe that the records set back in 1898 were set because the players were so much better.

All of that being said, ESPN’s choices were…interesting. Maybe it’s just me, but not ranking Nolan Ryan as one of the top 10 right handed pitchers and making A-Rod the number three shortstop of all time? Roger Clemens as the 5th best righthander, PED’s and all?

When disagreeing about something, often times a person will defend their point with a “Well then, who else?” argument. If I’m going to criticize, ESPN, I have to back it up. However, to make it interesting, here is my all time 25 man roster. If I had access to every MLB player in their prime to add to my roster, this is how I would play it out. A slightly different take on the greatest of all time mantra. Today, we’re starting with the 80’s pop band, The Outfield.

Left Field

Hank Aaron spent the majority of his days in right field, but he had the speed, range, and arm to play anywhere in the outfield. Left field is typically occupied by the weakest fielder of the trio of outfielders, so anyone who can man center or right can usually handle left.

Aaron is synonymous with the term “Home Run King”, even after Barry Bonds passed him almost ten years ago now. That’s because Aaron conquered the seemingly unreachable Ruthian total of 714, a record that many felt would never fall, and surpassed it by 41, unaided by steroids or anything other than the power of a flick of his wrists.

Yet Henry Aaron is so much more than that. You might know that Pete Rose is the all time hits leader, and the more savvy baseball fans are aware that Ty Cobb, the only other man besides Rose to reach 4,000 hits, resides in second place. (A fact that surely would have rankled him.) Yet few know that it is Aaron, not Honus Wagner or Stan Musial (though Musial is just 140 hits behind him), nor George Brett that occupies the number three spot on the list: It is none other than Hank Aaron. Aaron’s greatness lies in his remarkable consistency: He never once hit even 50 home runs in a season, yet he hit 40 or more 8 times and 30 or more 14 times. 50 home runs was a regular occurrence in the steroid era: players such as Brady Anderson, Luis Gonzalez, Ryan Howard, and Greg Vaughn all reached that plateau, and none of them are anywhere close to the Hall of Fame. Yet the only player from this inflated offensive era in baseball history who even approached Aaron was the man who eventually passed him.

Aaron also spend much of his prime in the high mound era of the sixties than was so dominant for pitchers that the mound had lowered to keep competitive balance-but Aaron still managed to win two batting titles before the mound was lowered. He also collected three Gold Glove Awards-the pinnacle of most players’ careers, but a mere footnote in his.

There are a great number of terrific outfielders-perhaps more so than there are at any other position. Picking three is no easy task, but Aaron was perhaps the easiest selection of them all.

Center Field

William Howard Mays, Junior is considered by many to be the most complete baseball player of all time. Not only could Mays hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, field, and throw, he could do it better than anyone else.

These days, the term 5-tool player is thrown around when a guy hits .300 with 25 homers and 25 stolen bases while being a good defender. Willie would hit .330 with 50 homers and steal 40 bases. Mays won 12 Gold Glove Awards, and he would have won more had the award been instated before 1957. He holds the record for the most putouts in baseball history-and the most iconic catch in the history of the game.

Mays was so good for so long, and his peak value was unlike anyone else. If he didn’t lose two years of his prime to the Korean War, he easily would have easily surpassed 700 and most likely would have passed Ruth himself. The statistics are staggering-but that’s only half the story. What makes Mays special is how he played the game. He was amazingly durable. He was the greatest defensive player ever by many metrics-and one of the best to ever swing the lumber, too.

Many believe that Mays is the greatest to ever step in between the lines. Even those who don’t must grudgingly admit that he was certainly the most complete player to lace them up.

Willie Mays could do it all-and he did.

Right Field

Three of the greatest baseball players of all time, men who defined an era of American history and were revered as household names across the land during baseball’s golden age-didn’t make the list. Ted  Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Stan Musial dominated the 1950’s, yet none of them cracked this list. They were left off in favor of three of baseball’s most hallowed names. The next man on this list is perhaps the most recognizable of them all.

Babe Ruth would probably make this list as a pitcher, had he stuck with his original position. Instead, he became the most revered slugger the game has ever known. (Madison Bumgarner, this could be you.)

Ruth’s untouchable 714 has now been passed twice, but that doesn’t make it any less special. It wasn’t just the ball that created the lack of home runs in the dead ball era-it was the approach. Everybody tried to hit like Ichiro because it was the most consistent way of garnering success at the plate. Anyone who tried to launch moonshots ended up with a can of corn instead. Ruth changed all of that.

After leading the league with 11 homers (seriously), Ruth shocked the baseball world when he swatted 29 the next year. That was more homers than entire teams hit back in those days. Those who figured that it was a once in a lifetime fluke were drastically mistaken when Ruth nearly doubled his total and smacked 54 the next year. That was nothing short of unheard of in those days. None of the great home run hitters who followed him would have done what they did without one George Herman Ruth.

As baseball and advanced statistics evolve, it becomes even more clear how dominant Ruth was. Sabermetrics love Ruth, grading him as the best ever with their sacred OPS statistic, which combines on base percentage with slugging percentage.

Just think of how many homers Ruth could have hit had he started his career in the outfield with the live ball they use today. 800 is not out of the question. Four years to hit 86 home runs when he was young would have been a piece of cake.

Ruth’s weight problem made him no great shakes in the outfield, but the other parts of his game are often overlooked. Would you believe me if I told you Ruth’s career batting average is well ahead of Tony Gwynn, Honus Wagner, and Wade Boggs? That it’s just .002 points behind Ted Williams and Ichiro is almost 30 points behind?

Something that seems impossible is seen as a “Ruthian Task.” For all of Mays and Aaron’s greatness, they never made it into common vernacular in the way Ruth did. He epitomized all the grandeur and success of the Roaring 20’s, and did his best to distract a nation from the desolation of the Great Depression.

Ruth was not without his numerous faults-but there were almost none when he stepped inside the batter’s box.

Giants Gamble on Even Year Magic and the Overvaluing of Elite Relievers

The Giants paid the market price for reliever Will Smith, which doesn’t mean they didn’t get ripped off. It just means they got no more ripped off than the Cubs or Indians or Nationals did when trading for Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, or Mark Melacon. The amount of value given up for elite relievers in the 2016 market is unprecedented. The moves made by the Indians and Giants were incredibly short sighted. The Cubs get somewhat of a pass because Addison Russell has shortstop locked up for the foreseeable future and the Nationals should be credited for getting an actual closer. But the Giants and Indians mortgaged the farm and bet that 2016 would be their year, and paid a heavy price for it.

(CBS Sports)

It all comes back to the Yankees and their historically dominant bullpen, the likes of which hadn’t been seen…ever. All the Yankees needed was six solid innings from their starters in most games this year, a mark that at least the first three pitchers in a  MLB rotation should be able to hit consistently, and they would be sitting pretty as a Wild Card team. That didn’t happen, as the Yankees featured one of baseball’s worst starting fives and a mediocre record led to the availability of a trio of dominant relievers. Suddenly, every team with a halfway decent starting rotation and any semblance of playoff hopes pictured these guys on their team and dreamt of October dominance.

(Wikipedia)

I blame the Indians, perhaps drunk on the idea of Cleveland sports success following the Cavaliers NBA Finals victory. They dealt Clint Frazier, one of the best prospects in all of baseball, among others, and got in return maybe 130 innings over the rest of this year plus the next two seasons. Look, Miller is a great pitcher. A dominant pitcher, and has the potential to be a huge piece in a World Series team. But Frazier has the potential to be a franchise player for 10 years instead of two. Frazier gives you so much more than Miller can, just by the nature of their respective positions. Now, part of the value of Miller is that he is a known commodity and Frazier is not. It’s possible that Frazier gets hurt or never becomes the player most scouts and experts believe he has the potential to be. But the smart money is on him becoming an everyday player and a potential All-Star. That’s just too much to give up for a player whose role could be filled by most league average starters! When you add that to the fact that the Indians play in the weak AL Central and, even with Miller, less talented and less experienced than both Texas and Boston, the move makes even less sense. The move makes the Indians better in the short term, but not by enough to truly make them World Series contenders.

The Yankees’ best outfield prospect since Bernie Williams. (MLB.com)

The Miller and Chapman trades had huge ramifications throughout the league. Despite the Chapman trade being rational for both sides, it led to a series of irrational moves throughout the league. At the forefront of these is the San Francisco Giants trade for Will Smith. Smith is basically a poor man’s Miller, a left handed relief pitcher who can eat an inning and is effective against both lefties and righties. The Giants had a need for a left handed reliever after an injury to Josh Osich, and Osich was already inconsistent to begin with. It’s just that I’m not convinced that Steven Okert or Ty Blach would do that much worse than Smith, and effectively for free. The Giants gave up catcher Andrew Susac and pitching prospect Phil Bickford for Smith. Susac has real potential, but he has struggled coming off an injury and the Giants have found a backup catcher they really like in Trevor Brown. This allows Susac to get regular playing time and fulfill his potential. Fine. A solid player, but expendable. Bickford, however, is an astronomical price for a slightly better than average reliever. Bickford was the Giants’ first round pick a year ago and the consensus top rated prospect in their system. He had an electric debut in Single A and looked to follow in the footsteps of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner as the next homegrown Giants starter. With Peavy and Cain aging and no guarantee that Johnny Cueto sticks around after 2017, Bickford and Tyler Beede, the Giants 2014 first round pick, looked to play a big role in the Giants future. Yet Bickford is gone now, at least six years of Major League control, most likely as a starter, and in return the Giants got a decent set-up man. I’m sure that Bobby Evans and Brian Sabean found the price to be high. But really, with the precedent set in the Miller and Chapman deals, there was no way the Brewers were going to make the deal without Bickford.

The Giants sold the farm for Will Smith. (MLB.com)

Now, Bickford is still fairly low in the minors and a lot can change between now and whenever he makes his MLB debut. There are concerns about the recent loss of fastball velocity and his effectiveness against Major League hitters. But still-every prospect has concerns until they prove they can be effective at the highest level, and this was the highest rated prospect in the system. Most of the time, guys like that work out to be at least average MLB starters. In my piece this morning, I pointed out how most elite relievers are just starters who couldn’t cut it. Now teams are trading away players who they don’t even know if they can cut it or not.

If they can’t, just turn them into a reliever and trade them for a guy that can cut in a few years.

Now, in all seriousness, not every failed starting pitcher can be a reliever at Miller’s level. But most relievers are players who weren’t effective enough as starters. That’s how Mariano Rivera and countless others started.

Will Smith is good. But there’s a low chance that he’s better than Bickford will ever be. A couple years ago, a Bickford and Susac type of package would net a No.2 starter in return. This crazy market has led to franchise altering trade that will affect the MLB for the next 15 to 20 years. Those who stay out of it on the sellers end will be deeply disappointed, and the buyers may find that the best trade is the one you don’t make.

The Smith deal has a greater chance of actually playing a part in delivering a World Series, but Miller is better than Smith by more than the difference in potential between Frazier and Bickford. When you consider that the Giants threw in an everyday MLB player, the Brewers got a better deal than the Yankees, but not by much. At first glance, the Giants got fleeced here.

There are players who can ignite a franchise and help a team win a World Series. Players that get hot with the bat and energize a clubhouse. Dominant starters whose value increases exponentially with the ability to go with a three man rotation in the playoffs. Closers who can anchor the back end of a bullpen. But middle relievers won’t be the centerpiece of a World Series Champions team. And it’s not worth giving up your top prospect for anything but a centerpiece.