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.
The Boston Red Sox have designated third baseman Pablo Sandoval for assignment, ending a tumultuous tenure for one of the greatest free agent busts in baseball history. Sandoval, the overweight, oft-injured former World Series MVP was a fan favorite with the endearing”Kung Fu Panda” nickname in another life, but the Red Sox never got any of what made him so popular in San Francisco. The team is willing to eat the rest of his salary (pun intended, but almost too easy to acknowledge), and were willing to make him go away without getting anything in return, which speaks to just how bad he has been. Hopefully, the Red Sox will recognize what went wrong so the do not repeat the mistakes of this signing.
The blame game is never simple when evaluating acquisitions in Major League Baseball. Ben Cherington was the GM of the Red Sox in the 2014-15 offseason, when the Sox signed Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, and traded Yoenis Cespedes in exchange for Rick Porcello. But in order to cough up that kind of money, Cherington had to have the blessing of ownership, and former team president Larry Lucchino was still in the picture at the time. Lucchino was a great baseball executive, an inevitable and deserving Hall of Famer–from overseeing the building of two beautiful modern ballparks in Baltimore and San Diego to the renovation and revitalization of Fenway Park–but his track record of meddling in Boston’s baseball operation, particularly this decade, was not a great one.
Lucchino clashed with Theo Epstein, who left the Red Sox for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, and who will go down as baseball’s greatest executive since Branch Rickey. He brought in Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona, going from the best manager in Red Sox history to maybe the worst to manage a full season. He lowballed Jon Lester in contract extension negotiations, which set off a series of events that led to a player who never wanted to leave getting traded to Oakland at the 2014 trade deadline, signing with Epstein’s Cubs that winter, and being Chicago’s go-to big game pitcher in their 2016 World Series run.
The Sandoval signing had all the markings of a Lucchino move. He was a big name, one of of the most recognizable characters on a Giants team that had won the World Series three times in five years, including in 2014. Surely, he’d be just as marketable in Boston, right? Wrong. As it turns out, past success on a west coast team in the other league combined with never being able to stay on the field, and being absolutely terrible when you do play does not make for a marketable star in Boston.
Cherington left the Red Sox in 2015 and now works for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was replaced by Dave Dombrowski, the former Detroit Tigers GM with whom he made the Porcello trade. Lucchino retired in 2015, and now runs the Pawtucket Red Sox. Dombrowski inherited the Sandoval problem, but he did not make the third base situation any better by trading Travis Shaw for Tyler Thornburg, who still has not pitched for the Red Sox.
Nobody is innocent in this mess. Sandoval himself should have a better work ethic when it comes to keeping himself in shape. I’m not usually one for body shaming, but he’s a professional athlete. His job is to play baseball, and he has been well compensated for the poor job he did in Boston. San Francisco offered him a similar contract but with weight and health clauses written into it. The Red Sox did not hold him to that, and they got the player. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Red Sox as an organization when they sign a fat guy, and then are mad that he’s fat. Same thing when you sign an ace pitcher who has never won a start in the playoffs and is prone to social media meltdowns, and then are mad when he chokes in the playoffs and loses his cool with the media, social or otherwise.
For all their success this century, this is what the Red Sox are: constantly straddling the line between competence and dysfunction, between baseball decisions and marketing decisions, between joy and despair. This is what the Red Sox have been for a hundred years. They were the first dynasty of the 20th century, then they traded a young pitcher to New York, and he became the greatest power hitter of all time. John Henry is no Harry Frazee, and he may be one of the better owners in the game today, but he has had his share of slip ups to go along with his success.
The Red Sox may have broken through and broken the Curse, but they still have the DNA of the franchise that lost Game 7 of the World Series four times in 40 years. As great as David Ortiz was, and Pedro Martinez was, and Chris Sale is, and Mookie Betts is, they are always a couple of bad signings, or a couple of terrible trades away from it all falling apart. Such is baseball. Such is life.
It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.
The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco.
As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.
In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.
The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.
Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.
As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.
This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.
I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.
This Major League Baseball offseason has been terrific for trades and player movement, to the point that baseball is taking up time in the 24 hour sports news cycle during football/basketball/hockey season the way the NBA was during the middle of the summer when baseball was the only major sport playing games. The eager waiting of baseball fans everywhere for Jon Lester’s free agency decision did not have the ESPN flair of LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, but jokes about waiting for a new Pope, and anticipating red smoke if the lefty ace chose Boston and blue smoke if he picked Chicago (or orange smoke if he decided to take his talents to San Francisco, but they were out of the running before the Red Sox and Cubs) dominated Reddit and Twitter, and did not seem that far off from the reality of the situation. Not every offseason is this exciting, but 2014 has not disappointed, unless you’re a fan of the Orioles or Athletics (but even then, A’s fans must be used to Billy Beane’s wheeling and dealing by now, and they’ll be contending again soon enough).
One team that usually flies under the radar during the winter, and rarely makes waves during the regular season has been right in the thick of it this offseason, however. The San Diego Padres might not be good this year, but there’s more to talk about with that club than there has been in a while.
The Padres are one of those teams that you might forget are in Major League Baseball if you follow an American League team, and they’re not on the inter-league schedule. In recent years, the National League West has been dominated by the San Francisco Giants, and Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Arizona Diamondbacks (who beat the New York Yankees in seven games in 2001) and the Colorado Rockies (who actually beat the Padres in a one game playoff before eventually getting swept by the Red Sox in 2007) have both been to the World Series since Bruce Bochy, Trevor Hoffman and the late great Tony Gwynn led them to a National League Pennant in 1998, before being swept by the juggernaut Yankees. These days, Gwynn is in Cooperstown, but gone well before his time, and Bochy and Hoffman appear to be headed there eventually, with Bochy the skipper behind three World Series winning teams in the last five years, and Hoffman getting a new award for the National League’s best closer named in his honor, but none of them are doing anything to help the Padres right now.
The plight of small market teams in baseball is reflected in San Diego’s baseball club. Adrian Gonzalez was a good player for them, but they traded him to Boston in 2011 rather than sign him to an extension or lose him via free agency. This winter, however, the Padres went on the offensive with their trades, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays, and Justin Upton from the Atlanta Braves, three outfielders with All-Star caliber bats. They also flipped veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan to the Red Sox for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. This is a low-risk trade that could potentially work well for both teams. Middlebrooks is a young player with plenty of power who gets injured almost as much as he strikes out, but a change of scenery could be good for him, especially since the Red Sox were ready to move on from him with the signing of World Series hero Pablo Sandoval earlier in the offseason. For the Red Sox, Hanigan is a local kid (from Andover, MA) who could play the role of mentor to young catcher Christian Vazquez, and replace David Ross (who signed with the Cubs to catch for Lester) as the team’s backup catcher.
The recurring theme seems to be a change of scenery, and there isn’t much better scenery than San Diego. I was always surprised that San Diego couldn’t attract free agents on its good weather alone, but it is exactly what these players need. Matt Kemp was a fan favorite and a legitimate superstar in Los Angeles, having been a two time All-Star, two time Gold Glover, and a two time Silver Slugger, but is now 30, and has had injury issues, and has fallen out of favor with the Dodgers. It’s interesting to note, though, that both Kemp and Dodgers owner Magic Johnson were mentioned by name in the Donald Sterling tapes, for being people that V. Stiviano had taken pictures with and posted to Instagram against Sterling’s approval. At any rate, it was probably time for Kemp to head south. San Diego should be a good change of pace after playing his entire career with the Dodgers.
Wil Myers was part of a big trade two years ago that sent pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Kansas City Royals. Myers, a top prospect in Kansas City’s farm system was believed to be a steal at the time, although Shields and Davis were a big part of the incredible, improbable, no joke, very exciting run to Game 7 of the World Series that Kansas City went on this past October. Myers was no slouch, either. He won the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Award with Tampa, and at 24, still has a promising future ahead of him in the game of baseball. It may be a very Boston-centric sports take, but it might do Myers a lot of good to spend less time at Fenway Park. Myers made a costly error at Fenway in the 2013 ALDS, which helped kick off the Red Sox postseason success that year, and in 2014, he collided in the Fenway outfield with Desmond Jennings resulting in a wrist injury that would derail his season (as well as the Rays’ season, which resulted in Tampa trading David Price to the Detroit Tigers, general manager Andrew Friedman leaving to become President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, and field manager Joe Maddon leaving to become manager of the Cubs). With the Padres, Myers won’t even have to go to Fenway every season.
Justin Upton is another player who could use a change of scenery because things just weren’t working in Atlanta. The Braves had plenty of bats, but had poor plate approach as a team. Upton and his brother B.J. did not live up to the hype that came with them arriving in Atlanta the same year. After the Braves dealt Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, it seemed as if they were ready to blow it up and start rebuilding.
It’s unclear at this time if the Padres will be good, but it’s the first time I can remember that there is buzz around the Padres in the offseason, and it just might lead to regular season buzz. At the very least, the Giants and Dodgers are looking over their shoulders because the division has a chance to be more than just a two team race in 2015.
Sorry to leave without saying goodbye. I went back to school this fall for the first time in over a year, and felt it was going to be hard enough balancing a full time job with classwork, but there was so much I wanted to write about in the last three and a half months! I have a lot to talk about, and I’ll start with a quick recap of what I might have written about.
The World Series
When I last posted, I thought the Baltimore Orioles were the best team in baseball. Whoops. I had no idea about the Kansas City Royals, but I don’t think I was alone on that one. The Royals ended a playoff drought that was older than I was, having reached the postseason for the first time since they won the 1985 World Series, back when Ronald Reagan, the actor, was President. It took them twelve innings to knock the Oakland A’s (which was Jon Lester’s last game as an Athletic, signing with the Chicago Cubs earlier this week, and they didn’t even get to use Jeff Samardzija, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox last week), and proceeded to make short work of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Orioles, two teams that conventional wisdom would lead one to believe were better than the Royals. At the same time, the National League winners of the Wild Card Game, the San Francisco Giants, were also making it look easy. The ease of victory came to a grinding halt when the two teams met, though.
It was a tough series to figure out. Neither team was your typical team, and neither was accustomed to losing in the World Series, either. The Royals may have gone 29 years without playing in the playoffs, but the last time they were there, they won it all. The Giants had a championship drought of their own for a time, but in 2010 they won their first World Series title since moving from New York to San Francisco in 1958. They won again in 2012, and in 2014, they made it a dynasty. In previous series the heroes were many. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Barry Zito, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Edgar Renteria, Hunter Pence, Aubrey Huff, Jeremy Affeldt, to name a few. In 2014, it was all about Madison Bumgarner. MadBum is now the only pitcher to start games in all three San Francisco Giants title runs, and he is still only 25. He pitched more innings in the World Series than the other San Francisco Giants’ starters (Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, and Tim Hudson) combined, and ended it all with a five inning save in Game 7 in Kansas City. Usually, the contributions are evenly distributed along a championship roster, like the 2013 Red Sox or the 2010 and 2012 Giants, and that’s what the 2014 Royals would have been if they had won, but sometimes a pitcher can go out there and refuse to lose. The 2014 Major League Baseball playoffs will be remembered for the incredible and improbably run that made October in Kansas City mean more than just Chiefs football, but it will mostly be remembered as the Year of the Bumgarner.
This season in football, regardless of what my Patriots do in the playoffs, will be the year I more or less tuned out of the NFL. I was busy on Sundays with homework, but I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much. And I love football. The problems off the field have made it hard to be excited about the NFL this year. It’s bigger than Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. The problem lies in the commissioner’s office. Roger Goodell is the worst commissioner in all of sports and his constant change in the rules depending on how he feels any given week is maddening. I can only imagine what being a player in that league must be like. What Ray Rice did was wrong. What Adrian Peterson did was wrong, but the way the NFL handled it would not be acceptable in any other line of work. This isn’t a new opinion, but I didn’t have time to write about it in September. I look forward to the day when the NFL hires a competent commissioner, but until then, wake me up in the playoffs.
Speaking of playoffs, I haven’t watched a minute of college football, but I love they new playoff system already. College football doesn’t need a tournament of 64 like college basketball has, but this Football Final Four thing excites me. They have four powerhouse teams: Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama, and Oregon. These four teams play in the semi-final round on New Year’s Day, and they National Championship will follow. I love it. I haven’t been this excited about college football bowl season in my life.
The Bruins can’t score, and the Celtics can’t defend
It’s that kind of year at the TD Garden. Both teams can make the playoffs (well, the Celtics can, and the Bruins should), but it does not feel like the kind of season that will end with a summertime duck boat parade for either team. For the Celtics, it’s part of the learning curve of a young team, and it’s completely understandable. For the Bruins, it’s frustrating. Peter Chiarelli mismanaged the salary cap because he thought it would go up more than it has, or something, and had to trade Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders for nothing that can help them this year. The Tyler Seguin Trade from the summer of 2013 does not look very good either, as Seguin has become one of the NHL’s top scorers with the Dallas Stars, and the Bruins struggle to put the puck in the net.
The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, That was awesome. They were bounced by the Washington Capitals in 2012. That was lousy, but Bruins fans were okay with it because they had just won the year before, and Tyler Seguin and Tuukka Rask were young and getting better. In 2013, they came within 17 seconds of the chance to play a Game 7 for the Cup in Chicago, but then the next 17 seconds happened (normally I would link a Youtube clip to a sentence like that, but it’s been a year and a half, and I still haven’t had the stomach to live through that again), and that was lousy, but it was a fun ride just to get there. In 2014, they lost to the hated Montreal Canadiens, who lost to the New York Rangers, who lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. This year, the downward trend has continued. Can they right the ship? Of course. Can a lower seed win it all if they get hot at the right time? Just ask the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Champion Kings. If you’re going to take a couple of steps backward, is it a good idea to raise ticket prices? No.
I will write more soon.
Well, so much for paying Jon Lester. So much for extending John Lackey. So much for Jonny Gomes getting a chance to break the record for most pinch hit home runs in a Red Sox uniform, a record set by the great Ted Williams. We’re having a fire!!!! …sale. This is not what I expected less than a year removed from the Red Sox winning the World Series, but I’m working my way through the stages of grief as the Red Sox attempts to rise from the ashes of this fire sale.
When I first started writing this article, only the news items about the Jon Lester (along with Jonny Gomes) to the Oakland Athletics and John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals trades had broken, but that wasn’t all. Relief pitcher Andrew Miller and shortstop Stephen Drew within the division, with Miller being dealt to the 1st place Baltimore Orioles for minor and Drew going to the New York Yankees, who will be in Boston to face the Red Sox this weekend. In addition, starting pitcher Jake Peavy was dealt to the San Francisco Giants last weekend, and former starting pitcher (recently demoted to the bullpen, much to his dismay) Felix Doubront was sent to the Chicago Cubs earlier this week. That’s seven players who contributed to the team that won the World Series ten months ago, including the pitchers who earned all four World Series wins (Lester won two games, Lackey and Doubront each won one). Lackey, Lester, Gomes, Peavy, and Miller are joining teams that will be playing in October in all likelihood, and while the Yankees are having their struggles this year, Drew is joining a team that will have a vacancy at the shortstop position to fill this winter for the first time in nearly 20 years, so it’s a good place for him to be. I thought the Red Sox would be making trades this summer, but I am pleasantly surprised by the return they got on the players they traded away.
In Yoenis Cespedes, the Red Sox acquired an All-Star power hitter, who was batting cleanup on the best team in baseball this season, and who has won the Home Run Derby each of the last two years. Cespedes is part of the major surge of Cuban-born talent we have seen emerge in Major League baseball in the last few years along with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, and Chicago White Sox first baseman (and likely 2014 American League Rookie of the Year) Jose Abreu. The biggest issue I had with moving on from Jon Lester (besides deciding that a guy who has proven he can perform at the highest level at Fenway Park, in October) is that the return wouldn’t be worth it. I was afraid of giving away Lester for minor league prospects that would never be successful at the Major League level. Cespedes has proven it. He’s already there. He’s 28 years old, and still hasn’t reached his ceiling. I had no idea A’s GM Billy Beane would give up his team’s biggest power hitting threat in a year when they have a reach chance to win it all, but that’s exactly what he did. For all the books and movies written about Beane over the years, he is still a general manager who has been in the same city for over a decade, yet has never won the World Series. He needs to win it to truly validate his reputation. Other teams have caught up and used the player evaluation practices he made famous in Moneyball, the Red Sox being the most successful example, but he still hasn’t broken through. Beane is hoping a two month rental of Jon Lester can outweigh what Cespedes could bring to the batter’s box in the playoffs.
Oakland can now go into October with a pitching rotation of Lester, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jeff Samardzija (acquired last month in a trade with the Cubs), which is just about as scary as the rotation the Detroit Tigers have, now that they have acquired David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays and not have the last three American League Cy Young Award winners (Price, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander) on their roster. It should make for a great playoffs, even without the Red Sox.
For Lackey, the Red Sox got bespectacled right-handed starting pitcher Joe Kelly and former All-Star outfielder Allen Craig. It’s amazing to see the exchanges of talent that have taken place between the two teams who faced off in the World Series last fall. I was impressed by Kelly in the playoffs last year, and Craig was a major reason why the Cardinals had been able to let Albert Pujols, who is right up there with Stan Musial and Bob Gibson on the list of all time Cardinal greats, walk in free agency and follow his departure with a trip to the NLCS in 2012 (before falling to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants) and a trip to the World Series (before falling to the eventual champion Boston Red Sox). Kelly was off to a great start this season before getting injured, and Craig’s production had taken a dip this season, but the acquisitions of these two players help the Red Sox going forward, adding offense to an outfield that has struggled mightily at the plate this season, and adding a quality starter to a rotation that saw its top two pitchers traded away this week. In my opinion, this is a huge haul for John Lackey, who asked for a trade as soon as the trade rumors for Jon Lester, and who would be playing for only $500,000 in 2015 and if he didn’t get an extension, he might decide to retire. Now, that’s St. Louis’ problem, but their a contender again this year, and they know as well as anyone how good Lackey can be in the playoffs, since they were on the losing end a year ago.
Before the trade deadline, the narrative was one of a wealthy, but overly thrifty baseball club squeezing every dollar out of a franchise southpaw, who they did not think was worth it. I was ready to hammer them if the return was not great enough, and I fully expected it to be. The Sox had made big deals at the deadline in the past under this ownership, but when they traded away Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, they got pennies on the dollar in return. In both cases, they were not going to bring the star player back, and in Nomar’s case, they went on to win the World Series, an we were all okay with it.
I heard Mike Felger talking on 98.5 The Sports Hub before the deadline talking about the way fans view the Red Sox compared to the Patriots, and he brought up an interesting point. Whenever the Pats cut bait with a star player (like Wes Welker or Richard Seymour, for instance) fans call into the radio station defending the move and proclaiming their trust in Bill Belichick, and saying that it’s all part of his master plan. When the Red Sox decide to part ways with a guy like Lester, the fans panic and think the team has no idea what they are doing. The thing is, the Red Sox under John Henry and the Patriots under Robert Kraft have been the most successful franchises in their respective sports since buying their teams. After decades of futility, these two 20th Century punchlines have become models for how to win in baseball and football in the 21st Century, and you could argue that the Red Sox have actually been more successful. The Patriots never finished in last place after hiring Belichick, but the Red Sox have been a playoff team more often than not in a sport where it’s much harder to make the playoffs. We’re quick to second guess the Sox because of Bobby Valentine, because of the ten years Roger Clemens pitched after leaving Boston, because the Red Sox ownership will put their team’s logo on anything to sell it, but act like they have the spending power of the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays when one of their home grown stars approaches the open market, and because the 86 years without a title began when the Red Sox traded the greatest baseball player of all time to the New York Yankees to finance a Broadway show.
More than anything, baseball is an easier sport to second guess, because I have more hands-on experience playing it as an organized sport (eight years of organized baseball to only one year of organized football), and a lot of people are the same way. Half the fun of watching baseball is trying to play skipper from the living room couch. I didn’t like the idea of dealing away Lester, and I’m still holding out hope that he’ll be back in Boston in 2015, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by what the Red Sox pulled off this week.
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. San Francisco Giants. I think last year’s struggles were a fluke and that the Giants will be back in the playoffs once again in 2014. Barry Zito is finally off the books, and the Giants have brought in a different Moneyball-era former Oakland A’s ace in Tim Hudson. Zito’s contract was the most expensive contract for a pitcher at the time of his signing in San Francisco, but for tall the criticism he took, it ended up being one of the better bad contracts in baseball history. I mean, it couldn’t have hurt the Giants that badly if they won their first two World Series titles since moving out of New York, and they definitely do not win the 2012 Series or even get that far without Barry Zito.
The Giants have re-signed World Series heroes Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum to contract extensions, They still have one of baseball’s best all around players in catcher Buster Posey, who is just entering his prime. Bruce Bochy is still among the best managers in Major League Baseball, and is now the winningest one now that Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker are both either retired or out of work. San Fran’s GM Brian Sabean is very good at adding to the roster at the trade deadline to improve the team for October.
The Giants, much like the football team that shares their name, is one of those teams that always seems to miss the playoffs or win it all. They were champions in 2010 and 2012, but sitting at home in October of 2011 and 2013. If they make the playoffs, they will be a tough out. If the miss the playoffs, they might be back in it next year. That’s Giants baseball. They never make it easy on themselves, but they’re always around to play.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers. When the 2013 season started, the Dodgers looked awful. There was nothing going right for a team with one of the highest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Josh Beckett was fat, overpaid, and dealing with nagging injuries (sound familiar, Red Sox fans?). Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was on the hot seat, and nothing could jolt this team into action until Yasiel Puig came along. Puig had maybe the most exciting first month in Major League Baseball a rookie has ever experienced. He brought energy and swagger to a franchise that has to compete with the Lakers, Kings, and countless A-list stars for attention and relevance. From there, the Dodgers were the hot team all summer, and their August series with the overachieving Red Sox looked like a World Series match up in the making. The Red Sox upheld their end of the deal, but the Dodgers came up short against the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Dodgers this year have signed Clayton Kershaw to a long term extension, keeping the face of the franchise on LA. Magic Johnson and his business partners who own the Dodgers have not been afraid to spend money, but with a high payroll comes high pressure. The Dodgers have not been to the World Series since they beat the Oakland Athletics in 1988, and every other team in the NL West has been to the Fall Classic since then, including the arch nemesis Giants, who went there three times and won twice in that span. I expect the Dodgers to be competitive, but I don’t expect them to be as good as they were for stretches of last season. That’s a tough winning percentage to maintain for long periods of time. There’s a lot of talent on that roster, but also a lot of history of not playing the best they can, especially in the cases of Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford, who were all acquired from the Red Sox in 2012. The Dodgers will be connected and compared to the Red Sox as long as the players from that trade are playing, and so far, the Red Sox have earned another red pennant to put up at Fenway, and the Dodgers still have to answer a lot of questions.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks. Last year, the D-Backs were the team that got upset that the Dodgers celebrated too excessively in their ballpark when LA clinched the NL West division title. Everyone else around baseball thought it was funny. It served them right for building a pool in the outfield. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate with a pool party? Arizona’s manager, Kirk Gibson, will forever be linked to the Dodgers for his iconic pinch hit home run in the 1988 World Series, his only at bat in LA’s rout of the A’s, but now he’s managing a division rival. The D-Backs aren’t a great team, but they will compete. This is a relatively weak division, but the D-backs are looking to crash the party that only the Giants and Dodgers ever seem to get invited to anymore. Maybe it will happen this year, but I wouldn’t count on it.
4. San Diego Padres. The Padres have to be the least interesting franchise in Major League Baseball. There uniforms have changed a bunch of times, but none of them are particularly memorable or iconic. They’ve played in the World Series and they’ve had Hall of Famers, but what have they done since Tony Gwynn retired? I don’t know either. San Diego was the place were Trevor Hoffman quietly recorded nearly 600 saves (he did get to 600, but not until he was playing in Milwaukee) while Mariano Rivera got all the attention for recording save after save in New York for a Yankee team that won the World Series five times in his career. According to Wikipedia, they are the only Major League team that has never pitched a no-hitter, and one of two teams to never have a player hit for the cycle.
I had to consult Wikipedia just to be able to name players on the Padres roster. Joaquin Benoit is a good pickup. He was the best reliever the last few years for the Detroit Tigers, and was great against David Ortiz until one fateful night in October. After that, the Padres have a few former members of the Red Sox farm system like Casey Kelly and Reymond Fuentes as well as has-beens like Carlos Quentin, Huston Street, and Xavier Nady, but most of the roster consists of unfamiliar names. Bud Black is a pretty good manager, and he’s tasked with getting these guys to compete, but there’s nothing to be excited about…except for the really really nice weather San Diego has all the time, I guess.
5. Colorado Rockies. The Rockies seem to be trying to recreate the magic of the Minnesota Twins teams from five years ago, with Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, that never won a playoff series. Todd Helton, the greatest Colorado Rockie ever and Tennessee Volunteers starting quarterback before some guy named Peyton Manning, retired last fall and the Rockies gave him a horse to ride off into the sunset with as a going away present. Troy Tulowitzki is still one of the best hitting shortstops in the game, and Brett Anderson is a pretty good pitcher, but this seems like the makings of a playoff team from 2008. Then again, people were saying the same thing in a sarcastic manner when the Red Sox acquired Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Mike Napoli to go with David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, and that 2008 All-Star team went on to win the World Series in 2013, so what do we know?
In conclusion, the National League West is a top-heavy division, but there’s enough talent on the other three teams to make it interesting, even if none of the teams have a particularly good record.