1. Nelson Cruz and the long arm of the law
Echoes of John Lackey’s blasting of Nelson Cruz arrived here well before the Orioles’ All-Star contingent did Monday morning.
“I don’t have any comments about it,” Cruz, the slugging outfielder with 28 home runs at the break, said. “I just go about my business and try to make my team happy and my fans happy.”
As he spoke, echoes of Melky Cabrera’s disgraceful All-Star Game MVP award two years ago in Kansas City continued to roar in the distance.
You remember that one: The Melk Man belted a two-run homer, helped the National League seize home-field advantage for that year’s World Series...and then was popped with a 50-game suspension one month later for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
With Cruz starting a new chapter in a new life, everything has been juicy crab cakes and (theoretically) not-so-juicy homers in his new Baltimore home so far this summer. Second in the AL in both homers and RBI (74) at the break, Cruz is hitting .287/.353/.570 and has helped push the Orioles to the top of the AL East.
Of course, as Lackey reminded the world a couple of Saturdays ago after Cruz torched the Red Sox during a 5-for-5 game, it is easy to “forget pretty conveniently about stuff.”
Cruz was suspended 50 games while with the Rangers in the summer of 2013 for his ties to the Biogenesis scandal.
Yet here he is, batting sixth in manager John Farrell’s American League All-Star lineup Tuesday night.
Over the winter, the players union moved to tighten the screws even further for those failing PED tests, agreeing to stiffen a first-offense penalty to an 80-game suspension (from 50) and increase a second offense to a full-season suspension (162 games). Also under new rules, anyone suspended for juicing will be ineligible for that year’s postseason.
Now...should they be welcome at the All-Star Game?
“It’s such a hard topic to broach, because there’s such gray areas,” Tigers starter Max Scherzer, who was outspoken when former teammate Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Braun were caught cheating, told Bleacher Report on Monday. “You don’t know what the right way and the wrong way is to handle it.”
One right way would be to zap users by banning them from the Midsummer Classic. If they’re suspended during the first part of the season, it’s a no-brainer.
Of course, where to draw the line in the statute of limitations is where Scherzer’s gray area grows.
“I would like to think the game is as clean as it’s ever been,” Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki told Bleacher Report. “If a guy’s having a good year, no matter what he’s done in the past, he’s an All-Star. That’s the way I look at it.
“Forgiveness. I believe in it. We all make mistakes, Nelson knows he made a mistake. Maybe that fueled him in how he’s having such a special year. Because he wants to prove the doubters wrong. Forgiveness is best way to describe it. People do make mistakes, and they deserve second chances.”
As Scherzer said, at the end of the day, today’s players “want a zero-tolerance policy.”
“But we realize what we have to do to get there," Scherzer, who is active in the union, said. "We can only take baby steps in the right direction in tightening our rules. This offseason we took a step. We increased the games, we increased the penalties, and we’re hoping that with increased testing procedures and increased number of tests, we eliminate the incentive to cheat even more so that no one wants to take that route.”
As for Cruz, the past seems to be the past. He says he does not feel like he’s being scrutinized this year by folks giving him the ol’ microscope treatment, wondering if he’s clean.
“I think last year was worse than this year,” Cruz said. “It’s not even close.”
New summer, new team, new future...Cruz, here at his third All-Star Game, smiles at the way things are going.
“It’s nice, you know?” he said. “I come every year with the same expectations, try to do good and be the best I can. The main thing for me is stay healthy. If I can take my at-bats and be on the field on an everyday basis, I know I can be at my best.”
And yes, he feels completely welcome here in Minneapolis.
“I was voted in by the fans,” Cruz said. “That tells you what the fans want to see.”
2. Will the Price be right?
David Price says he wakes each day now to at least a couple of text messages from friends around baseball who aren’t so much simply friends as, well, players on opposing teams checking in to see whether Price will be joining them anytime soon.
The Tampa Bay (for now) ace also says he generally receives a couple of more texts during the day, too.
“What have you heard?” Price says the texts read. “Are you coming over here?”
When he engaged in a Twitter exchange with Braves legend Chipper Jones a few days ago, everyone thought the Rays were about to ship him to Atlanta.
“I don’t care who it is in baseball, if you’re a player of his caliber, I’m responding to that guy,” Price said. “I don’t care who it is, what team he played for...I’m not sure if Chipper works for the Braves. I don’t think he does.
“I grew up watching the Braves. It’s what me and my family did every night. My favorite player was David Justice; the big league games, I went to probably, four or five, I went to one in St. Louis and the rest in Atlanta. When I saw he tweeted me, I thought that was cool.”
The point probably should be made right here that Price was not traded to the Braves, and it is no sure thing that the Rays will deal him, period. Tampa Bay’s baseball people are meeting over the All-Star break, according to sources, to discuss various strategies. And having won eight of 10 games during one stretch earlier this month, the Rays may decide that the AL East is weak enough to keep Price and make a run.
Price was aware that his Twitter exchange fueled all kinds of speculation, but...
“I was just happy to be talking to Chipper Jones,” he said. “And then I saw it the next day and people thought I was being traded.”
Part of a new breed of players, Price, 28, gets much of his news from his Twitter feed.
“I don’t read [the rumors],” Price said. “I wake up in the morning and a different fanbase will say come over here, you’d look good in red, or you’d look good in whatever. So I get a feeling of what’s being written at that time.”
His favorite fanbase to reach out so far?
“I’ve got to go with the Rays,” he said. “They’re the ones reaching out and saying they want me to stay and how much they appreciate me. They definitely do have appreciation for me, because those are the fans that I’ve been pitching for for the last six or seven years. It’s special. It is. I definitely enjoy that from our fanbase, and it’s cool to have other fanbases want you as well.
“It’s always good to be wanted. It's a unique position right now, and we’ll just see how it shakes out.”
3. The Captain’s farewell
You bet that Derek Jeter dominated the talk here Monday, and we’ll have plenty on him from Tuesday night’s game. For now, here are some of the best thoughts on the retiring Jeter and what surely will be an All-Star Game forged in his shadow at Target Field.
“It’s an honor to get to play in his last All-Star Game,” said Tulowitzki, who wears No. 2 in Jeter’s honor. “As a child looking up to him, it’s sad to see him go, but at least he gets to go off on his own terms. Hopefully, he has a great showing. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said, “That’s a big thing. I’m sure they’ll have something in between innings take him out. It’ll be pretty cool. There will be a lot of flashbulbs.”
Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, who will throw the first pitch of the bottom of the first to Jeter, said, “I was telling my wife yesterday that this will be something I can always remember because I have never faced Derek in the regular season before. This will be the first time I ever face him. Spring training, the big leagues—and I’ve been in the big leagues for nine years—I’ve never faced him. I’m very excited about it, just to say I faced the best. And he is undoubtedly one of the best to ever play his position. One of the greatest Yankees of all time. And I’m very fortunate and very proud to say that I am going to face Derek Jeter.”
4. Wainwright over Kershaw
You can’t blame Cardinals manager Mike Matheny for starting his guy Adam Wainwright over Clayton Kershaw. Unless, of course, you bleed Dodger blue and regularly talk with Tommy Lasorda’s Big Dodger in the Sky.
Both are deserving. And yes, during Kershaw’s 41-inning scoreless streak, and given his NL-leading 1.78 ERA, there is nobody better on the planet than the Los Angeles lefty.
But Wainwright has thrown 138 innings this year, and Kershaw, because of the pulled muscle in his back that sent him to the disabled list, has worked 96.1. That Wainwright has pitched 41.2 more innings than Kershaw is significant, especially when Wainwright, on most sites, leads the NL with a 1.83 ERA (Kershaw doesn’t have enough innings to qualify) and is second in opponents’ batting average (.201).
Add to that the fact that the Cardinals played in the World Series last year, and Matheny has every right to reward his own guy.
“I haven’t talked to Mike, but I don’t have to talk to him,” Kershaw said Monday afternoon. “If I’m him, I’m probably going to pick Adam, too. It’s his guy. He had the best half. He’s been the best guy in the game for the first half.
“Obviously, I would have loved to do it. But to me it’s a pretty easy decision.”
5. Monday’s best moment
All-Star Games mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people, but none of them come more sweetly, more meaningfully and, yes, more complicatedly than this one to Cardinals first-time All-Star Pat Neshek.
Two Octobers ago, Neshek and his wife, Stephanee, lost their firstborn son, Gehrig (named after Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig) when he died 23 hours after birth. Gehrig had been born the same day Neshek’s team, Oakland, clinched the AL West title. Next thing Pat and Stephanee knew, inexplicable, devastating tragedy struck them.
Gehrig just stopped breathing without warning, and the Nesheks still believe the death could have been prevented, that their baby was administered the wrong antibiotics, which caused infection. They are pursuing legal options.
Stephanee became pregnant again last summer and delivered another son, Hoyt, in March.
Meanwhile, having pitched for parts of seven seasons with the Twins, Padres and Athletics, Neshek only had one job offer over the winter, from the Cardinals, and signed just about 10 days before spring training.
With a World Series team that appeared stacked, Neshek was afraid going to St. Louis would be "career suicide," as he told Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
Instead, Neshek has never pitched better. He owns an 0.70 ERA and two saves in 43 appearances, and Matheny said Monday that seeing Neshek’s face when he was informed he had made the All-Star team was one of the best moments of this entire process.
So here Neshek is, back home in Minnesota. Yes, he grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Brooklyn Park and was drafted by the Twins in 2002.
No wonder Neshek, a former high school All-State shortstop in Minnesota, became so choked up when asked what the best part of this entire experience has been.
“Just coming back here, and realizing it’s come full circle,” Neshek said, tears in his eyes. “I’m kind of choked up. I played Little League here, I played in the backyard with my dad and my brothers...Minnesota is a special place for us.”
His parents and his wife’s parents will be in the stands on Tuesday night.
And oh, yes, his brother Paul? He’ll be on the field. He is a member of the Target Field grounds crew.
6. Huston going to Anaheim?
The Angels are among the clubs aggressively pursuing Padres closer Huston Street, according to multiple Bleacher Report sources, as they continue to look to improve their bullpen and keep pace with Oakland in the AL West.
“I’ve heard a lot of rumors,” Street said on Monday. “The Angels are popping up over and over again. I’ve seen some reports there. I don’t have a no-trade or a limited-trade [clause], so it’s more about waiting and seeing.
“If it was the Angels, it’s a short drive from San Diego. Logistically, that wouldn’t be bad. My wife would appreciate that.”
Street said that the Padres have been “open and honest” with him about their desire to field offers. And with 24 saves in 25 opportunities at the break, he knows he’s hot.
“I think there will be some moves,” he said. “I think that when you’re a losing team, they make moves. Ownership wants to win, and they’re going to make all the moves they think is best for a winning organization. That’s why they bought the team. And I think our owners have that mind and that heart that they want to win and they don’t want to wait a long time to do it.
“If it means shuffling the deck it means shuffling the deck, and if I’m a card that gets dealt, so be it.”
Street is signed for $7 million this year with a $7 million club option for 2015. It is a very clean and desirable contract in that the acquiring team could have a very affordable closer for ’15 if it likes him, or it could cut him loose without cost, as there is no buyout clause in the deal.
7. Greinke: Don’t knock the Dodgers offense
As one of the most cerebral players in the game, Zack Greinke is worth listening to. And on Monday, he had a very specific point he wanted to make regarding the first-place Dodgers.
Namely, he’s tired of listening to harsh criticism of their offense.
“We have the fourth-most runs in the NL,” Greinke said, and, actually, that updated number at the break is that the Dodgers now rank third in the NL with 404 runs scored, behind the Rockies (457) and Brewers (423). “And people talk like we’re severely underachieving. I mean, you’re in a tough hitter’s park and you have the fourth-most runs scored.
“Maybe we could do slightly better, but I think the expectations are just too high.”
A record $234 million payroll certainly fuels those high expectations, as does the collection of marquee names like Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp.
“We should be held to a higher standard, and you could give a little criticism, but I don’t think you should be crushing [it],” Greinke said. “It definitely hasn’t been bad. You can’t expect everything, is my thought. And we’ve also dealt with some injuries, too.”
Kemp, Gonzalez and Ramirez all are older and not quite what they once were.
“You should probably know that they won’t be,” Greinke said. “You might think they should be close to what they were three years ago, but you can’t expect them to have their career year every single year.”
“I expect Adrian to have a better second half and Kemp to have better second half. Not saying it was bad, but you expect more. They were so good, and they’re still very good. You can’t expect them to carry an offense.”
8. Greinke: Watch those owners
Zack Greinke gave a great line while he was discussing why players watch each other’s contracts, because that is the main avenue to learn what kind of contract they should expect, by comparables.
“The teams are greedier than the players, just so you know,” Greinke quipped.
9. Low offense, big whiffs
For winning two World Series within five years in small-market Minnesota (1987 and 1991), manager Tom Kelly absolutely deserves consideration for the Hall of Fame. Of course, his 1,140-1,244 career record will keep him on the outside, but he remains one of the smartest men ever to pull the levers from the dugout.
And where he once was a gruff (some might even say cranky) taskmaster, it is a pleasure these days to watch him work with the Twins and their minor leaguers with such a sense of joy. And what a great time he had managing the U.S. team in the Futures Game on Sunday.
As always, he offered plenty of wisdom, and he didn’t hesitate to share his opinion on part of the reason why offenses are in such bad shape in today’s game.
“The thing that disturbs me the most, and it’s in the minor leagues as well—I watch the Twins—is the number of people who strike out,” Kelly said. “The people who take strike three and walk back to the dugout. It’s more and more in the minor leagues, and it’s disturbing.
“When you take the third strike and don’t put up much of a fight to fight off pitches and battle...I’m sure they’re trying, but that’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed.”
Kelly mentioned the fact that one of the Twins’ minor leaguers has 16 or 17 homers and “a boatload of RBI” and came up in internal discussions the other day.
“The comment was that he’s hitting .232 and striking out way too much,” Kelly said. “It doesn’t seem to matter much how you hit as long as you hit it over the fence and drive in runs. I think the days are over when you had to hit .320 in Triple-A to maybe have a chance to make the team next year. Maybe.”
9a. Rock ‘n’ roll lyric of the week
Ah Minnesota, where the All-Star Game meets Bob Dylan....
"A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
'Equality,' I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now."
-- Bob Dylan, My Back Pages