This baseball season has kind of stunk so far, quite honestly. That’s because it’s gone about as well as expected after one of the worst offseasons in memory. Freezing out free agents under the guise of emulating the Royals, Cubs, and Astros — but really just to pinch every last penny — has produced unsightly results for a number of tightwad teams (hello Orioles, Marlins, Rays, and Reds!). It also means the big bad bullies are back, as the Yankees and Red Sox are on their way to potentially-historic, nausea-inducing seasons in the American League.
So what gives? It’s hard to really “root for the underdogs” here when the underdogs aren’t truly trying to win. It’s hard to root for the Evil Empires ever, because, well, it’s self-explanatory. So who (if anyone) can play the saviors in 2018? The list is slim, and things look ever grimmer when you realize that the darlings of 2017, the Astros, can’t really seem to hit anymore. Oh, and their bullpen is still really bad.
I asked myself the other day what percentage chance we had for the AL champion to be someone other than the Yankees or Red Sox. The answer I came up with? 33.3%, since the Astros are the only other possible suitor. But that hope is fading fast when I watch a lineup with Carlos Correa hitting .351 and Jose Altuve hitting .333 struggling to produce in key situations. Why is a team with a world-beating, top-of-the-heap (statistically speaking) starting rotation and a lineup with marquee names only 16-9? The ‘Stros look like they don’t quite have an offensive identity yet, even as they get big contributions from less likely sources such as Josh Reddick and Brian McCann. Simply put, this looks like a World Series hangover and could last all year.
The Yankees are now officially “back.” It was genuinely surprising to see them lose one game, let alone nine, with the roster (specifically the lineup) they are trotting out every night. But fattening up on the overachieving Blue Jays and overrated Twins has brought things back to reality. The Yankees are hitting on cylinders at 13-9 and figure to only keep improving from here, especially with Giancarlo Stanton slowly but surely coming around. The bullpen is too dominant to blow games they way they did on a couple occasions early on, and the rotation is solid if not spectacular. Luis Severino is one of the game’s dominant pitchers, and Masahiro Tanaka can be on a given day. The Yanks are better than the Astros, even with a rotation discrepancy.
I also wish so many teams would stop tanking and selling it as a “rebuild” process like that of the Royals, Cubs, and Astros that produced the fruits of a World Series title. What the Marlins did this offseason was downright embarrassing and disgraceful, and makes people look down on Derek Jeter as an owner. Revered as a player (and rightfully so), he is not handling being the boss well at all. What should make fans even sicker (especially those who can’t stand the Yankees) is that basically any other potential owner who had bid on the Marlins had no plans to trade away the entire team, which means Giancarlo Stanton wouldn’t be in New York colluding with Aaron Judge (although he still might have ended up there later this year). Stanton, Christian Yelich (Milwaukee), Marcell Ozuna (St. Louis), Dee Gordon (Seattle) all got shipped out, and other than Starlin Castro, who was a Yankees salary dump, no legitimate resources were plugged into those holes.
Jeter is running the company line that the team is still trying to win ballgames, which makes him look even worse. Kudos to Don Mattingly for getting them to even show up some days. Then again, the Fish aren’t alone. The Reds are a trainwreck that is still exploding. Talk about a team with no direction and no hope. Joey Votto’s enormous salary may be weighing them down, but he’s also the only reason the few remaining fans do show up to Great American Ballpark. And how about those Orioles? Talk about botching the future. A golden opportunity presented itself last year to offload Zach Britton to Houston, and somehow the deal fell through. Britton, a pending free agent at the end of the year, tore his Achilles this offseason. Manny Machado, another pending free agent, was providing the O’s some big trade offers, all of which they passed on. Each day that goes by with only Machado producing for the freefalling club lessens his value since that’s one less day a club will be getting his rental services. Apparently, spending a boatload on Alex Cobb was just a ruse, another Ubaldo Jimenez in the making so the team could sell its fanbase that it did the bare minimum in a year it wasn’t going to contend anyway. Baltimore’s window is officially shut.
The tanking problem was acknowledged and addressed by MLBPA president Tony Clark this offseason. Top-level baseball folks are well aware that the cheaper teams can now use the Royals, Cubs, and Astros as an excuse to not spend money, and it’s eventually going to turn MLB into the top-heavy NBA where it starts to become hard to watch the same teams hogging all the glory. Yes, that trio did “tank” in a sense and was able to dig itself out of development hell, as they say in showbiz, but they are more the exceptions than the norms. Chicago and Houston in particular supplemented their young rosters with high-priced veteran talent once they started to emerge, and maybe it’s unfair to think some of these young clubs won’t do the same soon. Give the Phillies the nod for going back to spending now that their young core is starting to come around. The Braves aren’t far behind, nor are the Brewers. But there are far too many teams throwing in the towel in 2018 (and likely the next several years as well).
My early World Series prediction was Red Sox-Mets. I am generally inclined to stick to that, because I believe so heavily in the “got hot and forgot” theory that should serve those two clubs well. But really, you can interchange the Red Sox or Yankees in that prediction. The National League is more open, but it doesn’t look like the Senior Circuit will prevail in the World Series this year. Maybe these predictions won’t be accurate in the end, but we certainly know which teams won’t be there.