MLB: 10 Memorial Day Baseball Thoughts
As we celebrate our fallen veterans, I thought I'd take the time to reflect on the baseball season.
We're nearly a third of the way through and, in classic MLB fashion, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head. But that's why we play 162 games.
So here's a look back and a look forward at America's pastime on this special day.
Parity Really Does Exist in Baseball
Baseball has a bit of a bad rep because critics say the lack of a hard salary cap makes the league unbalanced. Well, tell that to the Cleveland Indians and their $49.4 million payroll. Or the Florida Marlins with their $57.7 million payroll.
The truth is that there is as much parity in baseball as ever. Of the 30 teams in MLB, all but six have between 23 and 30 wins this season. There are three division races that are as tight as a game and another two that are within two-and-a-half games.
You can't give all the credit for this to the Indians or the Arizona Diamondbacks, two teams that lead their divisions despite youthful rosters. However, organizations are definitely getting a lot better at managing their resources and developing players.
It's impossible to just buy a championship anymore, although the Phillies (33-20) and Red Sox (30-23) aren't in any rush to lower the cap. It's impossible to even stay at the top. This has to be one of the most closely contested seasons in MLB history, but the good news is that there should be many more to come.
The MLB Trade Deadline Is Going to Be Absolutely Unpredictable
Part of the problem with having so many teams still in contention is that there's no definitive line between the buyers and sellers.
Right now, we can pretty safely say that the Twins, Mets, Nationals, Astros, Cubs, Pirates and Padres are all sellers. What the other 23 teams are going to do is anyone's guess.
You have a team like the Royals, who at 23-29 probably aren't going to the postseason this year, but with a $38.2 million payroll could they have the flexibility to add some high-cost players?
The Indians, at 31-19, are in a position to go for it this year, but are they better off retooling and coming back stronger next year?
Would the Athletics be the team to beat if they could add someone like David Wright to their lineup?
We should know more of the answers to these questions as the trade deadline draws nearer, but with so many more buyers than sellers you can expect a really hectic flurry of activity. Or maybe no trades at all. Who knows.
MLB Draft Is on Its Last Legs
The 2011 MLB draft is next weekend, and for those of you who haven't been paying attention, it's going to be a pretty big deal.
Because this is the last year that teams will be allowed to sign players for above slot money.
Under the current system, you can sign a player for however much you want regardless of where you drafted him. The league has recommendations on what salary "slot" players should fit into, but teams generally ignore this. With the CBA set to expire this year, the system is going to experience a major overhaul, which in all likelihood means stricter compensation rules like the ones in the NBA and NFL.
Baseball teams, and big market teams especially, are going to take advantage of this last opportunity by spending millions upon millions of dollars to sign unproven prospects. You'll see guys in the late rounds receiving outrageous signing bonuses and high school players jockeying for more dollars.
Scott Boras is going to have a field day.
Jose Bautista Is Really, Really Good
If you were among the millions of fans who thought Jose Bautista's 54-home run season in 2010 was a fluke, you're not alone. I thought so too. I mean the guy nearly doubled his career home run total and more than tripled his previous single-season high of 16.
That doesn't just happen. Does it?
Well, apparently it does. Bautista once again leads the majors with 20 home runs already and a ridiculous 1.285 OPS. In case you're wondering, the MLB record is 1.422 set by Barry Bonds in 2004. In fact, Bonds, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams hold the top 12 spots in the record books. If you're looking for a modern comparison (non-drug category) try Larry Walker's 1.172 in 1997.
The scary part is he's getting even better. Bautista hit .260 last season. This year he's batting .350 and has struck out in less than a fifth of his plate appearances. And he's only 30 years old!
If he plays another 10 seasons, it's not inconceivable that Bautista could get to 500 home runs (he's at 133 right now). Could we be looking at a future Hall-of-Famer?
The Boston Red Sox Are Really, Really Good
With that 2-10 start now way back in the rearview mirror and first place in the AL East firmly in their grasp, the Red Sox finally look like the team we all thought they were. Except better.
It's almost impossible to quantify how well the Red Sox are playing right now, but let me try. In the month of May, the Red Sox are 19-8 (.704) with a plus-38 run differential. They've won five of their last six, six of their last eight and 13 of their last 16.
During a seven-game winning streak earlier this month (which they started by sweeping the Yankees), the Red Sox outscored their opponents 46-24. Then they scored 14 runs in consecutive games the following week.
The Red Sox are doing all this even though 40 percent of their starting rotation is on the DL and they have four regulars (Saltalamacchia, Pedroia, Crawford, Drew) all batting under .245. So what happens when this team gets healthy and on a real roll?
The Red Sox have 99 games left this season. Is it really that inconceivable that they could win 70 of them and finish the year with 100 wins?
Injuries Are a Part of the Game
There was a big brouhaha about changing the rules after Buster Posey broke his leg during a home plate collision with Florida's Scott Cousins.
It's too dangerous, they say. Catchers are in a vulnerable position and need to be protected, they say.
Well I say that's all bologna.
Baseball is one of the least physical professional sports known to man (I think only curling and golf are less physical) and player contact is extremely rare. Why take away one of the few things that actually makes the game exciting when there's so little risk to begin with?
I'm sorry the Giants lost their franchise player, probably for the season. He's a joy to watch and one of the best all-around players in the game. But injuries come with the territory. If they didn't, then catchers wouldn't wear a mask and a full body of armor behind the plate. That's as much protection as they need.
One Player Really Can Make a Difference
Speaking of injuries, that Joe Mauer one was a doozy.
He got a viral infection during Spring Training that completely sidelined him. When he tried to come back, he got hurt even worse and was put on the DL with what the Twins called "bi-lateral leg weakness." He hasn't played since April 12 and is still working his way back.
Now, I know that there are 25 guys on a baseball team. But is it really a surprise that the Twins completely folded without the heart and soul of the club in uniform?
Mauer is one of the best players in the game when healthy and is a three-time Gold Glover. He's not just the centerpiece of the offense, but the guy who handles the pitching staff and keeps everyone on the same page in the clubhouse.
Without him, the Twins have just been dreadful. At 17-34, they have the worst record in baseball. The team is hitting a pathetic .237 and the team ERA is a dreadful 4.77. Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano both look completely lost and are probably on their way out of Minnesota soon.
It's unfair to place all the blame for this on Mauer, but his value to his team is more than just about home runs and defense. He's not just their MVP, he's their bloodline.
The New York Mets Are the Worst Franchise in Baseball
The Pittsburgh Pirates happily surrendered this title to the Mets last week after owner Fred Wilpon decided to throw his own players under the bus, run over them and then set them on fire.
Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran must just be counting the days until they can leave. David Wright may not be very far behind them.
It's a sad state of affairs for a team that was bold enough to go after Johan Santana a few years ago, but that move hasn't quite panned out as expected (nor has the Jason Bay signing or the Francisco Rodriguez signing or the Pedro Martinez signing or the Beltran signing). In Wilpon's defense, he was willing to spend the money to bring good players to New York and it's not his fault they underachieved once they got there.
So what's next for the Mets?
Reyes and Beltran will be gone next season and the Mets will have the cash to go after Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols (though Ike Davis may not appreciate that). However, spending more money isn't the answer. This team needs a leader and, to Wilpon's credit, it's not David Wright (or any of the other aforementioned players).
The Seattle Mariners Need to Make a Move
The Mariners have been trying to construct a passable team around Ichiro for most of the past decade with little luck. Losing has become as much of a tradition in Seattle as offensive futility.
So why are they still holding onto Ichiro?
I understand that he's an icon in Seattle and one of the best hitters in the history of the game. The fans would probably revolt and call for GM Jack Zduriencik's head on a platter. But it's the right baseball decision.
Ichiro, 37, is making $17 million a year and is signed through 2012. He's shown no signs of slowing down, although his current .272 batting average leaves much to be desired and is still a Gold Glove outfielder. There are at least a dozen teams that would happily take him and give the Mariners a nice package of prospects (not to mention salary space) in return.
It's time for Zduriencik to face reality, and that reality is that Ichiro will not be in a Mariners uniform by the time this team is relevant again. The future is guys like Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. Let Ichiro finish his career with a championship ring on his finger.
MLB Is Doing It Right
At a time when the NFL is in the midst of a heated struggle between players and owners, with the NBA not very far behind, MLB stands out as the model organization in professional sports.
It seems almost unthinkable that baseball, relegated to second and third fiddle over the years by massive revenue deals in football and basketball, is now back as America's favorite pastime.
Bud Selig deserves a lot of credit for cleaning up the league with a strict drug enforcement policy and testing (something the NFL and NBA has yet to do). There's still a lot of problems to be sure and negotiations for a new CBA won't be easy, but MLB is in a better shape today than it was at any time during the 21st century.
And if Selig gets his wish (a second wild card) then baseball is going to be even better for years to come.
Happy Memorial Day.