A year ago, I wrote about how weird it was to have the New York Yankees, the historical power and biggest spender in Major League Baseball, playing the role of seller at the trade deadline. They seemed poised for a rebuild, and I was confident Brian Cashman was smart enough to see that through, but it did not feel right. 2016 was a weird year, and the Yankees bracing to rebuild does not even come close to the top fifty strangest things that happened last year, but 2017 appears to be reverting to what we know as normal, at least in a baseball sense. The Yankees are back, and for some reason, I’m okay with it.
After dealing Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians and Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, setting up the crucial late inning match-ups the World Series, there was the rise of Gary Sanchez. Sanchez, a catcher, batted .299 and hit 20 home runs in just 53 games, and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Two great months from a rookie catcher do not immediately make a team a contender, and the expectations for New York were still that of a team building through the farm system to be great in a couple years heading into 2017. Then Aaron Judge happened.
If you told me the next great Yankee was an outfielder as big as Rob Gronkowski, who hits the ball harder than Giancarlo Stanton, and who is so humble he’s more likable than Derek Jeter and Mariano River combined, I would have thought you were crazy. There could not be a human like that. Aaron Judge is such human. Last year, he was a strikeout machine, and this year he has transformed himself into a baseball crushing machine who is quickly becoming one of the faces of baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Yankees had another transcendent icon of the game. They always land on their feet in that regard, but who would have thought it would be one like this? Baseball players aren’t supposed to be that big, and if they are, they become pitchers. All I can do is sit back and be amazed.
With their rebuild fast-tracked by a baseball unicorn, the Yankees resumed their normal role of buyers at the trade deadline, and they bought, and bought, and bought. They acquired third baseman Todd Frazier, starting pitcher Tommy Kahnle, and relief pitcher David Robertson from the Chicago White Sox, relief pitcher Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins, and capped it all off by acquiring right handed ace Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees did not get the biggest names that moved this trade season, as the Texas Rangers sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the White Sox sent Jose Quintana across town to the Cubs, but they acquired quality in volume and filled the most needs of any postseason contender. It also helped their cause that they made trades to bolster third base and the bullpen, taking players off the market in the most glaring places of need for their forever rival Boston Red Sox.
These are the Yankees I remember.
As much as I hate to admit, the Yankees being good is good for baseball. They are the lightning rod for the hate of the other 29 fan bases. The villain role in sports is something that should be embraced. As a Patriots fan, I embrace it. The Yankees are better at being the bad guy than anyone else in Major League Baseball. In the years since they last won the World Series in 2009, several teams have had the chance to take the Iron Throne of Evil from the Yankees, but the fit has never been quite right. The Red Sox, in spite of their three World Series titles since they last met the Yankees in the postseason, cannot get out of their own way year to year. The San Francisco Giants won three World Series titles in five years, but were irrelevant in the off years. The Dodgers, for all their regular season success and high payroll, have not won the National League Pennant since 1988. The Cubs only got good in the last two years and before 2016, the last president to be alive for a Cubs championship team was Lyndon Johnson, who was born two months earlier in 1908. They are not ready for that kind of role. The Red Sox are 13 years removed from becoming winners, and they aren’t even ready for it.
The team that came the closest was the St. Louis Cardinals. They have won the most titles of any team in the National League, they rub other fan bases the wrong way with their “best fans in baseball” mentality, and their was an actual FBI investigation into front office members hacking the Houston Astros (and somehow Deflategate got more coverage?). They should have become the most hated team in baseball, but animosity towards the Cardinals translated more into Cardinal fatigue more than Cardinal hate for me. It just wasn’t the same.
The Yankees are the Alabama football or Duke basketball of Major League Baseball. Nobody is indifferent to these teams. If you follow that respective sport, you have strong feelings one way or the other, and that keeps you engaged even if your own team is not a contender. I should be upset that the Yankees were not bad for a longer period of time, but hating a middling team or a team with a losing record is just not as much fun.
When lefty reliever Andrew Miller was traded by the New York Yankees to the Cleveland Indians last summer, it changed the trajectory of the 2016 Major League Baseball season. Not only did the deal, along with another high-profile trade that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Chicago Cubs, mark a stark contrast from the Yankees’ normal trade deadline approach, Miller and Chapman were the centerpieces of the two bullpens that reached the World Series.
The 2016 World Series ended up being one of the most watched and most talked about Fall Classics in my lifetime, and as a result, Miller became a household name beyond the hardcore baseball fan community and the cities where he has pitched like Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, and Boston. It was a true Series for the Ages, and Miller put together a brilliant postseason for the Tribe, including being named ALCS MVP. One of the biggest moments of the series was when Chicago catcher (and fellow bearded 2013 World Series Champion) David Ross homered off him in Game 7, but that hardly diminishes Miller’s standing as one of the elite relief pitchers in the game today.
One of the lessons I have taken away from me recent re-watch of Ken Burns’ Baseball is how often great pitchers slip up in these big moments, because you have to be really good to be on the mound in these ultimate high-leverage situations. Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit home run in the 1988 World Series was an incredible feat not only because of how physically hobbled he was at the time, but also because it was Dennis Eckersley, the best reliever of his era, standing on the mound at the height of his powers for the Oakland A’s. Much of The Tenth Inning, in fact, is devoted to big moments in which Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, could not close the deal in both the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
What makes Miller so interesting is that unlike Eckersley or Rivera, Miller is not primarily a closer. In the 2016 postseason Cleveland manager Terry Francona elected to throw Miller out there in the highest leverage moments of the game, to shut down the opposing offense, regardless of what inning it was once the starter was out of the game. This unconventional bullpen approach, which flies in the face of decades (or maybe even a century, as I’m not entirely sure when the conventional system of bullpen structure first solidified, and much of “just the way things are done” in baseball dates back to the 19th century, and I didn’t have time to take a deep dive on bullpen usage history for what was supposed to be a quick tangent) of clearly defined relief roles. You have the “7th Inning Guy,” the “8th Inning Guy,” and the “9th Inning Guy,” and the guy pitching the 9th should be your best guy, your closer. Miller’s use in 2016 was a potential game-changer.
The rise of Andrew Miller since he became one of MLB’s best relievers starting in 2014 may very well be enough already to change some people’s minds about his entire career. For instance, in 2007, Miller was traded by the Detroit Tigers along with Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, Frankie De La Cruz, Cameron Maybin, and Mike Rabelo to the Florida Marlins for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. For eleven years, this was widely regarded as one of the most one-sided trades in recent baseball history, and then-Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has been widely lauded for pulling off the steal of Cabrera, who would go on to win two American League MVPs, earn the first offensive Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and led Detroit to the World Series in 2012.
Cabrera has been one of the best hitters in the game for over a decade, and was still only 24 when the Marlins dealt him to Detroit. While the Tigers consistently contended in the decade that followed, the Marlins toiled in futility. There are obviously other factors involved. Miguel Cabrera was not the only great player on the Tigers during that stretch, and trading Cabrera was hardly the only baseball operations misstep by the Marlins in the years before, during, and since, but there was a clear winner and a clear loser in that trade. My worry now, is that decades from now, or probably sooner, people will go on Baseball Reference, see Cabrera’s page linked to Miller’s page by virtue of that trade, and think maybe that trade was not so bad for the Marlins because of the player Miller eventually turned into.
I can remember in the spring of 2014, when I was working a second shift data entry job, and regularly listening to Red Sox games on the radio the pass the night. This was how I followed the Red Sox in 2013 (all the until Koji Uehara recorded the final out of the World Series), 2014, and 2015, until I got moved to first shift. During one game, I remember, they had Alex Speier, a very knowledgeable baseball writer who at the time wrote for WEEI.com (he is now with The Boston Globe) in the broadcast booth to talk with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien, and he talked about Miller and Burke Badenhop, who was new to the Red Sox that season and has one of my favorite names in all of baseball (I mean seriously, a ground ball pitcher with “bad” and “hop” in his name?). Speier talked about talking to Miller and Badenhop about the historic trade, about being forever connected to Cabrera, who had signed a record contract extension with the Tigers in the previous offseason. (Side note: after a little bit of research, this WEEI.com article by Katie Morrison that Speier contributed to from May of 2014 has a lot of the insights I remember and more.)
For whatever reason, this exchange in a game I cannot remember for a particularly bad Red Sox team three years ago stuck with me. Miller and Badenhop both turned into fine Major Leaguers, but even if they did their best pitching after the Marlins, there are ways the trade could be justified.
A good cross-sport comparison I like to make to the Miguel Cabrera Trade is the trade that sent Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Boston Celtics (sorry for all the Boston-centric references, it’s what I know best). The Celtics gave up a bundle of players for a superstar, and turned into a title contender overnight. The Wolves have yet to make the playoffs since trading KG, and that trade got Kevin McHale fired as Minnesota’s GM in time. While McHale could feel vindicated by the solid NBA careers Gerald Green and Al Jefferson had (the latter was so promising that some in the Boston media including legendary Celtics power forward/head coach/homer broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn adamantly did not want Big Al to get moved in a trade for Garnett), they were not enough to fill the void left by KG in Minnesota. Like the Marlins in 2008 after Cabrera got dealt, the Timberwolves of that same era were also not helped by other roster building missteps bigger than the one one-sided trade, most notably having back-to-back picks in the top ten of the 2009 NBA Draft, and used them on Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio, both point guards, but neither was Steph Curry, who was taken at #9 by the Golden State Warriors in that same draft.
In spite of the success of the Celtics and the futility of the Wolves in the years that followed, I cannot help but thinking how close it could have come to being different. What if, in the summer of 2007, when the Celtics had already traded for Ray Allen and everybody on the roster not named Paul Pierce was on the table to package in a trade for the third star, what if Danny Ainge had slipped Rajon Rondo and/or Tony Allen instead of Sebastian Telfair in a moment of desperation to get McHale to bite on the Garnett trade? Would the roster have been good enough surrounding the New Big Three to really contend with the Cavs, Magic, and Pistons of the late 2000s?
Similarly, what if Dombrowski threw Justin Verlander into the bundle of players because he was so desperate to reacquire Cabrera, whom Dombrowski first signed as an amateur free agent while GM of the Marlins in 1999? While one great pitcher would not necessarily have turned the Marlins’ fortunes around, it certainly would have made the trade a lot less one-sided. Dombrowski would certainly not have the same reputation he currently had of being a genius trader (which I’m a bit skeptical of as a Red Sox fan, with the Drew Pomeranz trade and such).
Without venturing too much further in the Miguel Cabrera Trade What-If Rabbit Hole, here’s one more: what if this October, in an American League Wild Card Game or later series-clinching game between the Tigers and Indians, Andrew Miller, in the highest of high-leverage moments of the season, gets out of the inning (and to raise the stakes just a little bit more, let’s say he’s in a bases-loaded jam) by striking out Miguel Cabrera on three pitches? Can you imagine the think pieces coming out “In defense of the Miguel Cabrera Trade”? I certainly can, and it hasn’t even happened yet. That is why I am writing this to get out in front of it.
Ultimately, I don’t think there is anything Andrew Miller can do to validate that trade from the Marlins’ perspective, and not just because he did not put it all together until years after leaving Florida. Miller always had good stuff. His big frame and high velocity made him an attractive prospect, selected sixth overall by the Tigers in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft. During his time with the Red Sox, he was featured in the excellent documentary Knuckleball! as the hard throwing lefty who takes Tim Wakefield’s spot in the starting rotation in 2011 while Wake is in pursuit of his 200th career win. With all the love and respect in the world to Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the two stars of that doc, Miller’s validation and vindication from his role on the 2011 Red Sox is a much lower bar to clear, and it’s fair to say the 2016 postseason did that for him.
While Miller’s reinvention from mediocre and frustrating starter to elite and dominant reliever has been a fascinating transition, but when a new generation browses Baseball Reference years from now and thinks the Cabrera Trade was a fair trade, we must be vigilant and ready to set the record straight. Or maybe Miller will somehow reach a new level of bullpen greatness so profound that he is more famous in fifty years than Cabrera, but I have my doubts. Either way, time will tell.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about baseball’s uncertain future, about baseball’s success as a regional sport may leave it in the dust behind football and basketball on the national stage. I cited my own fandom and the way my friends follow baseball. I am a bigger fan of baseball than most people in their mid-20s, and even though one of my closest friends is named Daniel Murphy (and it’s worth noting that MLB’s Daniel Murphy has followed up his incredible postseason with the New York Mets by leaving for the Washington Nationals and having a career year in D.C.), compelling playoff stories like the Mets or the Cubs or the Royals or the Blue Jays last year just don’t move the needle out of their local markets the way they would in other sports. In my observations of the declining relevance of baseball, I neglected to mention the demise of Boston’s most hated rival and the dull irrelevance of the New York Yankees.
Red Sox vs. Yankees used to be one of the best rivalries in sports, for decades. It was a lopsided rivalry, for sure, and having grown up on the losing end of the rivalry, it mattered that much more. For 86 years, the Red Sox had to measure themselves against the Yankees, after giving up arguably the greatest baseball player ever to New York before his potential was fully realized. The Yankees were a nothing franchise before Babe Ruth, like the New England Patriots before Tom Brady, or the Pittsburgh Steelers before Terry Bradshaw, or the Dallas Mavericks before Dirk Nowitzki, except magnified by nearly a century long sample size. Babe Ruth made the Yankees the Bronx Bombers, and ever since they had been baseball’s perfect villain. 27 World Series titles, 40 American League Pennants, and a meddling billionaire owner who was basically a more impressive version of Donald Trump. They were the perfect team to hate, and not just for Boston. That was what made October of 2004 as sweet as it was. The Red Sox did not just win the World Series. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their greatest foe. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their demons from 2003. It vanquished 1999 and 1978, and all the other years of “good, but not good enough” that defined Red Sox Baseball from Prohibition to Mission Accomplished. We had just gotten the upper hand over Yankees fans in the rivalry, and then it faded into obscurity.
We’re now in our third Presidential Election year since the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in the most thrilling seven game series (or at least the most thrilling comeback) in the history of baseball, and the Red Sox and Yankees have not met in the playoffs since. The Sox won the World Series two more times in 2007 and 2013, and the Yankees won it all in 2009, but the rivalry just isn’t what it was. If baseball can’t matter to New Englanders as much as it did before 2004, that is especially true of their most hated rival.
In 2016, the Yankees are in a position they are not used to being in at the trade deadline: sell mode. Money cannot fix all their problems. The enormous contracts they gave out to C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira before the 2009 season (which seemed like great deals at the time as New York would not have won the World Series that year without those two players) have hindered their ability to retool on the fly. Baseball has no salary cap, but it has implemented a luxury tax system that when a team like the Yankees or Dodgers cross that threshold, spending more becomes prohibitive. After the 2013 World Series, the Yankees paid top dollar for the dynamic, but oft-injured Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and Red Sox fans weren’t even mad, for the most part. The following winter, when former Red Sox lefty ace Jon Lester was available in free agency, the Yankees were not even in the mix for his services. The Yankees were not dominating in the standings or in hot stove headlines, and it was weird.
This week, Yankees GM Brian Cashman sent controversial closer Aroldis Chapman (who was suspended for domestic violence after the Yankees traded for him from Cincinnati last winter and whose presence will no doubt complicate the feelings of Cubs fans as their highly anticipated 2016 postseason run approaches) to the Chicago Cubs for a haul of prospects, and today sent hard throwing lefty (and 2013 World Series Champion with Boston) Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians for even more prospects. Gutting New York’s stout bullpen like this is essentially waiving the white flag on the 2016 season, but it could set the Yankees up for a brighter future when Teixeira’s and Alex Rodriguez’ contracts come off the books in the coming years. At the same time it raises the stakes even more for a Chicago team that has not won the World Series since 1908 and a Cleveland team that last won it in 1948.
Now Cashman has a chance to show that he’s the talented GM I believe he is. Since he became GM in 1998, inheriting a team that was already really good and had the spending power to add and add and add, his reputation has been just that. I thought that when Theo Epstein left Boston for the Cubs after the 2011 season, that Cashman might try to do something similar. While Theo has the distinction already of being the executive who built a championship team in Boston when no one had been able to since 1918, and now is trying to do that for the lowly Cubbies, I thought Cashman might find another midwestern National League team with over a century of history of his own, perhaps the Cincinnati Reds, to forge a second chapter of his legacy in a smaller market.
If Cashman can make the Yankees great again (gulp!), in this new competitive landscape, then he will deserve a lot more credit than he will likely get. No other team’s fans have any love for the New York Yankees, but there is something missing from baseball season when they are not in the mix. I hate to say this, but for Major League Baseball to be a national sport like the NFL or NBA, maybe it needs the Yankees. And I say that as a fourth generation Red Sox fan (gulp! again).
It’s March. Spring Training is underway, and the weather is going to start to get warmer. Soon enough we will have baseball again. It will be tough to top what happened in 2013 (full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan), but the start of baseball means a rebirth and a fresh start once again. I’m not good at predicting what will happen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.
1. St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards are the class of the National League. Albert Pujols signed with the Angels in 2011, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa retired that same winter after an improbable run to the World Series, and they’ve been just as good ever since. The Cardinals outlasted the Pirates and Dodgers to get back to the World Series in 2013, but came up short against the Red Sox, much like they did in 2004.
The Cardinals have a deep farm system and they can replace aging superstars more easily than anyone with the young talent they’ve drafted. Their pitching is strong, and Yadier Molina is the best catcher in baseball, both behind the plate and in the batter’s box. They have one of the tougher lineups in the National League with Molina, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, and newly acquired shortstop Jhonny Peralta going to bat for them. The Cardinals have one of the best starting rotations in baseball, headlined by Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha, who proved to be an elite even under the bright lights of the playoffs in 2013. Mike Matheny is a great young manager who has taken St. Louis to the NLCS and the World Series in his first two years, losing to the eventual champion both times. This year, I expect them to be there again.
2. Pittsburgh Pirates. They finally did it in 2013. Now, the Pirates have high expectations heading into the season for the first time since Barry Bonds was starting for them in left field. After getting into the playoffs as a wildcard, they stayed in it by beating the Reds in a one game playoff series, but could not get past the Cardinals in the NLDS.
Andrew McCutchen is the reigning National League MVP, and the best thing to happen to the Pirates organization since a man named Barry Bonds. Russell Martin had and incredible year behind the plate for the Bucs. They play in a tough division, but the Pittsburgh fans who had seen the Steelers and Penguins reach the finals of their respective sports six times since the Pirates last reached the playoffs, are hungry for a trip to the World Series. The team is relatively young, and Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle has them playing good baseball. I expect them to get back to the playoffs and maybe even make some noise this time around. If they falter, it might be because players like Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano fall back to earth. Last year, the Pirates and their fans were just happy to be there, but not that they have ended the twenty years of futility, the expectations are a bit higher.
3. Cincinnati Reds. It’s a new era in Reds baseball. After firing manager Dusty Baker despite three playoff berths in the last four years, decided to promote pitching coach Bryan Price to be the club’s new skipper. Pitching coaches are a lot like special teams coaches in football, in that they are important to an effective coaching staff, but very few of them ever get offered head coaching positions. Since John Farrell, who previously served as pitching coach for the Red Sox from 2007 to 2010, has enjoyed success as a manager, it seems more and more teams will be willing to consider pitching coaches as management material.
The Reds have one of the best hitters in baseball in Joey Votto. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are good hitters as well. Cincy’s pitching is the teams greatest strength, at least in the regular season, with Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey highlighting the starting rotation and Aroldis Chapman emerging as one of the best young closers in the game. The Reds have been to the playoffs three times in four years, but have had early exits each time. The core of this roster is entering its prime, and the expectations are high. Dusty Baker is out of a job because they couldn’t deliver on his watch. Major League Baseball’s oldest team is tired of living in the past. The Reds may have the most recent championship of any major professional sports team in the state of Ohio, but that was the year I was born (1990, against the Oakland A’s), and they are due. Fans don’t want another great regular season, but if they don’t even get that, then things could get ugly.
4. Chicago Cubs. One of these years, the Cubs have to turn it around, right? It could happen this year, but there are a few good teams standing in their way. Theo Epstein drafted well while he was with the Red Sox, and now Boston has one of the best farm systems in baseball while also competing for the World Series. Epstein won quickly in Boston because he inherited what was already a good roster built by Dan Duquette. Building a championship roster is easier if you already have Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez on your roster. Theo was the executive to ended a championship drought that began in 1918. Now he has a chance to end one that started in 1908. If he won were able to bring championship pennants to both Fenway and Wrigley, then he could go down as the greatest baseball executive of all time.
The Cubs have some pretty good young players who still have the potential to be great. 23 year old All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro is the biggest name of the bunch. After strong seasons in 2011 and 2012, Castro’s production fell off a bit in 2013, batting only .245 with 10 home runs, but the Cubs are hoping for a bounce back in 2014. Anthony Rizzo is another young player to look out for. New manager Rick Renteria is not the most exciting managerial hire, but hiring the biggest name isn’t always the best idea. There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered about the Cubs, but that’s what the regular season is for. Theo turned one franchise around already, but he’s going into his third regular season running the Cubs and if progress isn’t made, the Lovable Losers might be looking for a new executive come November.
5. Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers aren’t necessarily the worst team in the NL Central, but they were the most disappointing one last year. Ryan Braun’s suspension was a blow to baseball and may have cost Braun his friendship with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The days of the Brewers contending for the World Series just a few short years ago seem like a much more distant memory. Prince Fielder signed with Detroit and has since been traded to Texas. Zack Greinke got overpaid by the Dodgers. The Brewers were one of the most fun teams in baseball in 2011, but now they’re just a shell of their former selves.
Matt Garza is a Brewer now, but he hasn’t pitched to the level of his name recognition since he left the Tampa Bay Rays. Rickie Weeks is a pretty good player, if a little overpaid. Aramis Ramirez and Francisco Rodriguez have seen better days. The Cubs might be worse than the Brewers, but my expectations for this team are the lowest of any in this difficult division.
In conclusion, the NL Central is by far the National League’s toughest division, but I expect the Cardinals to remain on top. The Pirates and Reds will still be in playoff contention, and the Cubs are x-factor that is very intriguing from a front office standpoint.