1. Now Replacing Derek Jeter…
Mark it down in permanent ink: The Face of Major League Baseball’s unofficial transition started in earnest on a gorgeous Tuesday evening in Minneapolis. And everybody could see it.
“My vote is Mike Trout,” Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said. “When I played with him [in 2012], he was the perfect player.”
“Mike Trout sticks out to me, as he can really be the face of baseball,” Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “He’s such a great player.
“But some other guys have to help out as well. And if I’m one of those guys, I look forward to doing that.”
Tulowitzki absolutely is one of those guys. But…well, one of the requirements of being the Face of Baseball is that you’ve gotta stay on the field more often than not. And Tulowitzki has had a tough time doing that.
Other candidates to replace Jeter as Major League Baseball’s Poster Boy fizzle out somewhere along the way during the discussion.
Albert Pujols? Past his peak.
Ryan Braun? Had everything going for him and clearly was on track until we all discovered he was a habitual cheater and chronic liar.
Clayton Kershaw? Maybe, but tough to fill the job when you’re on the field only once every five days.
Miguel Cabrera? He has back-to-back MVP awards, but he’s shy and retiring and not fond of interviews.
Bryce Harper? Not quite, especially when he was as interested in managing the Nationals a couple of weeks ago as coming back to play for them.
Yasiel Puig? Hmmm, not sure if baseball is ready for that yet.
Yes, perfection in this game is nearly as impossible to attain as a pet unicorn.
And then, there is Trout.
“Puig is terrific, but there’s still some rough edges,” said Greinke, Puig’s Dodgers teammate and as sharp and analytical as anybody in the game, during a discussion in Minneapolis last week. “From last year to this year, it’s a huge plus how much he’s learned and gotten better.
“The reason why Trout is perfect is, not only does he hit good and field good, he runs bases good, he takes pitches when he should be taking pitches, he steals when he should be stealing, he throws the ball where he should throw the ball, he plays shallow when he should play shallow…he does everything perfect.
“And so Puig has stuff to learn. He’s got a chance, but you’re talking about a perfect player. It’s not easy to be like that. Sorry, Puig’s not quite there.”
Which absolutely is no knock on Puig. At all. The guy is as electric as anybody in the game. He packs more wattage than the lights atop Dodger Stadium.
But what separates Trout from everyone else is multifold: Not only is he, as Greinke says, as close to perfection as there is between the white lines, but he is a bundle of energy with a quick smile.
Part of Jeter’s charm over the years, aside from the five World Series rings, has been his perfect pitch when it comes to commenting on Yankees issues or baseball issues. He never strayed much from the Yankees’ mission statement, so to speak. Never got in trouble.
Trout, just 22, idolized Jeter growing up in New Jersey (even wore No. 2 in high school) and, like Jeter, is all about team wins, not individual accolades. So much so that he declined to participate in the Home Run Derby this year.
“I don’t know if he’s changed much since I played with him, but he was amazing,” Greinke said. “Having Torii Hunter there was so great for him. Torii helped him out so much. It’s too bad he had to go to a different team, because Trout could have learned so much more from having him around for a longer period of time.
“I say that because Torii is a very special person, too. If Torii was as good as Mike Trout, Torii would be the guy taking over for [Jeter as the Face of Baseball]. But Torii is not as good as Mike Trout right now.”
Greinke nails it here, too: Hunter would be a marvelous Face of Baseball. But he’s 39, and just not as good as Trout. And no matter the age, nobody else is, either.
2. What About Soccer?
One guy we absolutely know is not a candidate to become the Face of Baseball: Nationals infielder Anthony Rendon.
Now, Rendon could very well help the Nationals climb back into October this year.
But he is not going to win any awards from the Commissioner’s Office.
“I don’t watch baseball,” Rendon said just before the break, via Jason Butt of The Washington Post. “It’s too long and boring.”
Thing is, even for those of us who can’t get enough baseball, there is a point to be extracted from that sentence. The pace of too many games drags these days, especially when instant replay is called for and when the bullpen gates swing open.
“We are right at three hours,” commissioner Bud Selig told a group of us last week while speaking to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
Selig acknowledged he would like to see that pace picked up, though he also pointed out that many games have checked in at 2:30 or 2:40.
“There are a lot of things we can do,” he said.
It’s time to start the doing—starting with preventing players from leaving the batter’s box between pitches, leaning on pitchers to speed things up and widening the strike zone.
3. How Many NL Central Teams Fit into a Pennant Race?
Baseball’s tightest division is about to become baseball’s hottest division.
Milwaukee’s once-sizable lead has melted like a Popsicle in July, and now four teams are within about 2.5 games of each other in a race that is shaping up to be the best of all. Entering the week, the Cardinals were tied with the Brewers in first at 54-45, the Pirates were running third at 52-46, and the Reds were fourth at 51-47.
No other division has four teams over .500.
“We were expecting that,” Brewers closer Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez told Bleacher Report. “They’re not going to go away. Not only the Cardinals, but we expected the Pirates and the Reds, too.
“It’s going to be a dogfight all the way to the end.”
These teams are so close, and so similar, that they even get injured together. The Reds lost All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips, and the Cardinals lost All-Star catcher Yadier Molina to thumb injuries on the same day before the break.
Phillips is expected to miss six weeks after undergoing surgery on a torn ligament in his left thumb.
Molina is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks with a ligament tear in his right thumb. He also landed on the operating table.
“It’s a shame,” said Reds All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier. “We’ve got Brandon and Joey Votto (quad) gone right now. Those are two big guns.
“If you want the truth, you’ve got to put pressure on yourself. I’m the three hitter right now, and we need home runs. Pressure isn’t going to kill you. It’s going to make you stronger.”
Sounds good, but the Reds opened the second half by getting swept in Yankee Stadium. Frazier went 3-for-12 and homered on Sunday.
One key: The Reds and Cardinals still have nine games left against each other, as do the Brewers and Cardinals.
“I like our chances,” said Rodriguez, despite the fact that a 6.5-game lead on July 1 had dwindled away thanks in large part to Milwaukee losing 10 of 12 into the break. “They like their chances.
“The only people who are going to enjoy this race is the fans. They’re really going to enjoy it.”
4. The Not-So-Brady Bunch
Here’s a question: If Brady Aiken currently was a free agent who fled Cuba, how much money would he get? Maybe $30 million? $40 million?
That’s one reason why many in the industry think it is absolutely nuts that baseball did not step in behind the scenes and do everything short of forcing the Astros to honor their $6.5 million promise to Aiken before things blew up on Friday.
Because the Astros downshifted to a $5 million offer under very shady circumstances and Aiken refused to sign, now a bitter fight likely will extend to the MLBPA and the next bargaining session with the owners.
And baseball’s long period of labor peace—21 years now without a strike or lockout—could be threatened.
“Today, two young men should be one step closer to realizing their dreams of becoming major league ballplayers,” said Tony Clark, the players-union boss, in a statement. “Because of the actions of the Houston Astros, they are not. The MLBPA, the players and their advisers are exploring all legal options.”
The other player to whom Clark was referring is fifth-rounder Jacob Nix, who had agreed to a $1.5 million bonus but was caught in the crosshairs of the Aiken fight. Because the Astros lost Aiken, they lost their slot money and had no dough to sign Nix—through no fault of Nix’s own.
Many throughout the industry view it as awfully coincidental that the Astros needed $1.5 million for Nix and that they used Aiken’s physical exam as a way to lower his offer by the very magical number of, gee, $1.5 million.
The issue with Aiken’s elbow, according to sources, is that one of two key ligaments is thinner than the other one. Meantime, sources say that Aiken got second, third and fourth opinions on his own and that every doctor gave him a clean bill of health. It was the Astros’ doctor who raised the red flag. Hmmm.
It is an ugly scenario that should never have reached this point. And by the Astros being chintzy enough to attempt to shave $1.5 million, the repercussions on this one could be tens of millions if this lit fuse leads to a labor war.
5. Last Word on Adam Wainwright
The Cardinals right-hander took plenty of shots for “piping” a couple of pitches to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game.
But the larger wrong here, easily, would be if it is allowed to overshadow his absolutely classy gesture when Jeter approached the plate to start the bottom of the first inning. As the Target Field standing ovation gained momentum, Wainwright setting his glove on the mound, backing up onto the infield grass in front of second base and applauding, allowing the moment to continue, was absolutely wonderful.
Jeter said he motioned “let’s go” to Wainwright, but the St. Louis pitcher blew him off. It was a moment of pure class, exactly what sportsmanship should be. And if Wainwright is remembered for only one thing from this summer’s All-Star Game, that is what it should be.
6. What Is It Going to Be, Tampa Bay?
Those gutty little Rays swept Minnesota out of the break to run their winning streak to five in a row entering the week, and now they’re only six back in the AL wild-card chase.
So as the Clash might ask, does David Price stay at the trade deadline, or does he go?
It absolutely is the game’s biggest question between now and July 31. And, as the industry waits, so do the Rays. Expect them to take this thing right up to the deadline as they continue to assess their chances.
The Mariners, according to multiple sources, have been engaging the Rays in discussions regarding Price and Ben Zobrist for weeks. The Cardinals and Dodgers also are viewed as contenders for Price, though the Dodgers appear more interested in bullpen depth.
“I really couldn’t tell you, to be honest,” Price said last week in Minneapolis on what his gut was telling him. “I don’t know. I guess the teams that have good prospects [would be favorites to acquire him], but there’s certain ways to get around that with multiple-team trades. I really have no idea.”
His preference, he says, is to stay put. And he says he’s learned from watching ex-teammates James Shields, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and Delmon Young grind through the rumor mill: “I can’t let it affect me. If it affects me, it affects my teammates. And that’s not good.”
7. Pete Rose: Living on the Air in Cincinnati?
Next summer’s All-Star Game is in the Queen City, which means the betting begins right now as to whether Pete Rose will be involved. (OK, sorry, that was a groaner.)
Selig said he has no plans to change his stance on Rose, who remains suspended for life, and cryptically said the Reds “know what they can do and what they can’t do” where Rose is concerned while planning All-Star festivities.
Now, here’s where speculation begins in earnest: Selig is set to retire on Jan. 24, which means the Rose issue slides directly onto the plate of the new commissioner.
Might we have a change in stance by then? Might Rose become reinstated and allowed to return to baseball?
If that happens, wow. What kind of scene might that be in Cincinnati next July?
8. Padres GM Search Narrows
The list of candidates to replace fired general manager Josh Byrnes has been whittled to four, according to sources: A.J. Preller, assistant GM to the Rangers’ Jon Daniels; Billy Eppler, assistant GM to the Yankees’ Brian Cashman; Mike Hazen, assistant GM to Boston's Ben Cherington; and Kim Ng, a vice president in the Commissioner’s Office charged with overseeing international operations.
Preller went through a second interview Monday. The other three are expected for second interviews this week. The Padres likely will name a permanent GM by mid-August.
Meantime, the “Office of the General Manager,” spearheaded by A.J. Hinch, wasted no time after the break in firing the first shots toward a roster retool, shipping closer Huston Street and a minor leaguer to the Angels for four prospects on Friday and third baseman Chase Headley to the Yankees for Yangervis Solarte and right-handed pitcher Rafael De Paula on Tuesday.
Next up: Set-up man Joaquin Benoit, whom manager Bud Black named to replace Street as closer, could be on the move. The Tigers, among a handful of other clubs, are interested. Outfielder Chris Denorfia is expected to be dealt as well, and several clubs are calling about starter Ian Kennedy.
Kennedy is no sure thing to be dealt, however. Hinch, according to sources, is being extremely careful there, reluctant to gut the rotation of such a large piece and leave the new GM with a hole. Kennedy, 29, has thrown 180 or more innings over each of the past four seasons and is on pace to rack up another 200 this year.
9. Hall of Fame Managing Advice
Sitting in the manager’s office before the Futures Game last week, catching up with former Twins manager Tom Kelly, we stumbled on this fabulous baseball story.
Manager Ron Gardenhire’s office is decorated with framed photos of all the men who previously managed the Twins. One of them is a great shot of Kelly and the Tigers' late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, which led Kelly to reminisce about one of his favorite people.
“He gave me some great advice,” Kelly said. “He told me that when you have a good team, you just have one job to do: Go sit on the bench, and put your feet underneath you. Make sure to keep your feet tucked under the bench. Because you don’t want to trip anybody on their way to the plate.”
Kelly paused, then smiled. Here came the punchline.
“He told me now, when you have a bad team, a team you don’t like, you can sit there and put your feet out. Just go ahead and stick those things out. Because then, if someone trips, it don’t matter. But when you have a good team, you don’t want to trip no one.”
9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week
Why as long as we’re discussing a Cincinnati All-Star Game and Pete Rose (No. 7)…
“As I walk on through this wicked world,
“Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
“I ask myself, Is all hope lost?
“Is there only pain, and hatred, and misery?
“And each time I feel like this inside
“There's one thing I wanna know,
“What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?”
—Nick Lowe, (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding