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.
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. Atlanta Braves. Once again, the National League East is Atlanta’s division to lose. That’s been the norm for most of the time since I started following baseball in the mid-90s. The Braves are built to be a great regular season team, but that must be frustrating if you’re a fan of the team. You’re in it every year, but the only time they won the World Series during that stretch was in 1995 against the Cleveland Indians. The Braves have only won the World Series three times in their history: once in Boston, once in Milwaukee, and once in Atlanta. If you ask me, they’ll have to move to Japan, Vegas, or Vancouver before they win it again. Then again, there was a time in my life where I thought I would never live to see my beloved Red Sox win the World Series. They won the World Series when I was 14, and they’ve won it twice since then. Baseball has a way of imposing an existential sense of doom on people from an early age.
The Braves lineup boasts a lot of power from the brother B.J. and Justin Upton, and Dan Uggla. Jason Heyward is the team’s best athlete, and can make plays in the field as well as he can around the bases, and is only 24 despite having played in the majors since 2010. Freddie Freeman, when healthy is the team’s best hitter, and he’s only five months older than I am, which makes me feel like I haven’t accomplished enough in life (again with the baseball related existential crises, but enough about me). The loss of Tim Husdon from the starting rotation is a significant one, but not one they can’t overcome. Hudson is on the back nine of his career, but he was a great veteran presence in the Braves’ clubhouse. The loss of catcher Bryan McCann, in my opinion, hurts the Braves more than it helps the Yankees, but Atlanta was right not to overpay for an aging catcher who is not very good behind the plate. I expect to win the division, or at least make the playoffs, but going any further is not a safe bet with this team.
2. Washington Nationals. The Nats took a step backward last year, but had been trending in the right direction the past few years. In 2012, they were overly cautious about their future when they shelved Stephen Strasburg for the playoffs and they ended up not doing anything in the playoffs. They potentially left a championship on the table, and didn’t even get back to the playoffs in 2013. The success of the Nationals depends heavily on the health of their young stars Strasburg and Bryce Harper. If those guys are right, Washington has a chance to overtake Atlanta. If not, they’re a very mediocre team struggling for relevance and losing fan interest to the Orioles.
Beyond Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals have solid pitching from Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, and former Detroit Tiger Doug Fister, and solid hitting from Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span. This should be the roster of a playoff team, but there would be no point in having a 162 game regular season if we didn’t need them to go out and prove it. If they stay healthy, the Nationals should be a contender in the National League.
With Davey Johnson’s retirement at the end of last season, the Nats hired Matt Williams as their new skipper. This is Williams’ first managerial gig, but he already made a name for himself as a power hitter in his playing days. Williams was named in the Mitchell Report in 2007, but that did not stop him from getting coaching jobs, so hopefully this hire helps the baseball writers come to grips with the Steroid Era and hopefully it gets them off their high horse. Time will tell, I suppose.
3. New York Mets. In 2013, Mets fans had a reason to be optimistic about their team for the first time in years. They had endured years of September collapse, owners victimized by Ponzi scheme, bad free agent signings like Jason Bay and Francisco Rodriguez, and inability to keep their own star players like Jose Reyes and R.A. Dickey. Then Matt Harvey happened. The 24 year old starting pitcher was the story of the first half of the season in the National League last year, and earned the honor of being the NL’s starting pitcher in the All-Star game that was hosted by the Mets. Last August, Harvey tore a ligament in his elbow, and required Tommy John Surgery. His return is uncertain for this season, but that’s the New York Mets in a nutshell.
The Mets have quite a few has-beens on their roster including Curtis Granderson, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Bartolo Colon. David Wright and Daniel Murphy are pretty good players, but without Harvey, it’s hard to get excited about the Mets’ chances in 2014. The division is relatively flat after the Braves and Nats, so I suppose the Mets have as good a chance as anyone to compete, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Manager Terry Collins has a lot on his plate dealing with the pressure and expectations of playing in New York. If they Mets have another slow start, the media and the fans will grow impatient. They’re not just competing with the Braves, Nationals, Marlins, and Phillies in the National League East; they’re competing with the free spending Yankees for headlines in The Times, The Post, and The Daily News.
4. Miami Marlins. Last year, the Marlins were the laughingstock of Major League Baseball. Miami has easily been the most poorly run franchise to win multiple championships in my lifetime in any of the four major sports. After a disappointing 2012 season, they traded away their expensive talent to the Toronto Blue Jays, and appeared unwilling to spend money, a year after opening a new ballpark paid for by Florida taxpayers. Owner Jeffrey Loria is one of the worst owners in all of sports, and he showed us once again why. The result was a lost season with low attendance, but the Marlins have a chance to be better in 2014. They’re not a great team yet, but they’re headed in the right direction.
The Marlins appear to be building around 24 year old power hitting outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. This winter, the Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia away from the World Series winning Red Sox. Salty is an above average hitting catcher, who the Red Sox may have decided to part with because of his poor performance in the World Series. If he makes more accurate throws to third base, then the Red Sox win it sooner than Game 6. Salty struggled at the plate against St. Louis, and was benched in favor of David Ross for the final two games of the World Series. Salty is from Miami and it’s a great pickup for a team looking to improve its image among its fans and around the majors. Miami made another solid free agent signing when they brought in 36 year old former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal. They might not be the best team out there, but at least they will be respectable in 2014. Provided that Loria doesn’t blow up the baseball operation again to save a few bucks, the Marlins will be a contender sooner rather than later.
5. Philadelphia Phillies. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Phillies were the best team in the National League and among the best in all of baseball. When they won the 2008 World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays, it appeared to be the start of a dynasty. The following year, they were back in the World Series, but fell short against the loaded New York Yankees. With each year, they would end up a little further from the ultimate prize. They had great hitters in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth. They had great pitchers in Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt. Now Victorino is roaming the Boston outfield, Werth is roaming the Washington outfield, and Halladay and Oswalt are both out of baseball. What is left is an aging shell of a dynasty that could have been.
Last summer, Philadelphia GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. put an unceremonious end to this era in Phillies baseball when he fired field manager Charlie Manuel before the ceremony they team had planned to commemorate his 1,000th managerial win. Philadelphia is a tough city to be a coach because of the high expectations placed on the teams by the passionate fans and media members, but Charlie handled Philly really well. Despite the firing, Manuel is still with the organization as a special adviser to Amaro. Manager duties have been handed over to Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who split his playing career between the Phillies and Cubs, two of the lowliest teams in the history of baseball. Ryno has a tough job, but hopefully the Phillies give him a chance with the less than stellar roster they currently have. Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, and Lee are all still in Philly, but they are all getting up there in age. Hamels is only 30, but the others are all either 34 or 35. With each passing season, the 2008 World Series appears five years further away in the rear view mirror.