Mookie Betts is a rock star and other Opening Day takeaways

Opening Day delivered and so do I…

  •    Mookie Betts is a rock star in Boston, and what’s better than an Opening Day home run to emphasize that? He wasn’t even on the Red Sox radar a year ago. At one point, reporters asked John Farrell, “Why not bring this kid Betts up? He’s tearing it up at Pawtucket.” Soon after, he was up. He had to outplay Rusney Castillo to win a spot on the Opening Day roster, and he did that.
  • Clay Buchholz gave the Red Sox seven nice innings, and perhaps there’s no single piece of news that impacts a contender more than this one. If Clay Buchholz finally is the ace he has shown flashes of being when he’s healthy, the Red Sox are in a nice play.
  • Did you check out the times of games? Eight of the 14 games were played in well under 3 hours, six of them in 2:36 or faster. The basic commonsense changes may end up having a huge impact. Either that, or it was all those aces pitching on Opening Day.
  • Ben Zobrist played left field for the A’s, Eric Sogard moved back in at second and Sam Fuld played center. Sonny Gray pitched a great game, and the 2015 A’s start off on the right foot. This team may just hang with the Angels and Mariners all summer long. They’ve got 10 major league-ready starting pitchers, something no other team can say.
  • Orioles GM Dan Duquette makes an under-the-radar move to get Travis Snider to replace Nick Markakis in the right field. Snider gets three hits to help the O’s start with a win at Tampa Bay. This Duquette guy is good at his job.
  • Jimmy Rollins is not done.
  • Mike Moustakas is important to the Royals, both in production and in continuing the momentum of 2014. He’s off to a good start and so are the Royals.
  • David Price and Anibal Sanchez have to be great to keep the Tigers in the mix in the AL Central. Price started with a great performance.
  • Did you see Joey Votto and David Wright were hitting second? Someone is studying their analytics.

Parity? Competitive balance? I’m glad you ask.

Baseball’s competitive landscape has changed so much in recent years that it’s hard to grasp it all. It’s a new day, friends. Payroll no longer determines a team’s ability to compete. Smarts count, too. Big time.

So here’s to an Opening Day in which at least 25 of 30 teams believe they’re capable of going to the postseason. It has never been like this before.

Bud Selig had this crazy dream when he took over as commissioner 23 years ago. He believed the sport had to even the playing field and give more teams a chance to compete.

To that end, he commissioner a panel of economists and assorted other smart people to examine the sport. Selig laughs still when he remembers the day Paul Volcker, former Fed chairman, walked into his office.

“Big guy,” Selig said. “Cigar smoker. Brilliant. Intimidating.”

Anyway…

“He looks at me and says, `You have a problem,'” Selig remembered.

“Yeah, I know,” Selig told him. “That’s why you’re here.”

“You’ve got a system in which only about five teams are capable of winning,” Volcker said.

From this panel came change.

Revenue flowed from the larger-market teams to the smaller-market ones. A slotting system changed the draft. Also, about this time Billy Beane showed the world that there might be a better way of constructing a roster, one in which money wasn’t the deciding factor.

Little of this, little of that…

Here’s the bottom line:

  • 13 of 30 teams have played at least one postseason series the last two years.
  • 20 of 30 teams have played at least one the last five seasons.
  • Six different franchises have won the American League the last seven years.
  • Eight franchises have won the World Series the last 14 years.
  • The average payroll rank of the last 10 World Series winners is eighth.
  • In that time, the No. 1 payroll team has won just once–2009 Yankees
  • In 2014, 3 of the top 5 payroll teams and 6 of top 11 missed postseason.

Check out what Russell Martin said about his former skipper, Clint Hurdle

“He’s a great motivator. One thing I appreciate from Clint is that he’s always positive. Whether you’re sky high or grinding through a couple of losses, he always has the same attitude, the same presence. He creates that stability within the clubhouse. You know what to expect from him each and everyday. That’s comforting, especially for a younger clubhouse. That’s huge.”

Russell Martin on Clint Hurdle

 

No Darvish? So is there still a path to the postseason for the Rangers? As a matter of fact, there is.

This is a lousy break for the Texas Rangers. Let’s begin by acknowledging that much. No use sugarcoating it. In terms of pure stuff, Yu Darvish is right there with any pitcher in the game.

His 2013 season was Darvish at his best: 32 starts, 209.2 innings, 277 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA. The Rangers figured he was capable of putting those numbers on the board again in 2015.

They’re a team of unknowns, especially regarding the health of some of their core players. With Prince Fielder, Shin Soo-Choo and Darvish all healthy, the Rangers have a chance to win 90-plus games. Without one of them, the math changes.

Amid reports that Darvish may undergo Tommy John surgery, the Rangers will once more be dipping into the pitching depth GM Jon Daniels has accumulated. That depth–in fact the overall minor league talent–was a reason to believe the Rangers could sustain success in the years ahead.

Now, though, they’re going to need some of that pitching depth in 2015. If you’re wondering why the Rangers don’t make a play for Cole Hamels, that’s an easy one. This isn’t the time.

The Rangers are one of the few franchises that have the young pitching depth to make a deal, but until Daniels has a better handle on his team, there’s no point in making a go-for-it deal.

Instead, the Rangers need to get a better gauge of what they already have.  The Rangers are in good shape in terms of veteran depth: Derek Holland, Yovani Gallardo, Colby Lewis and Ross Detwiler.

That’s a much more imposing growth when you put Darvish’s 220 innings up near the top of the group. Without him, it’s missing a bunch of quality innings.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Behind that group are younger pitchers like Nick Tepesch, Nick Martinez and Anthony Ranaudo. At various times, all of them have been high-ceiling prospects.

Even more interesting are the kids behind that group: Luke Jackson and Alex Gonzalez and Jake Thompson. Daniels was hoping that all of them would get important developmental innings in the minor leagues this season. Now the timetable could look a bit different.

The larger point is that the Rangers can still be in the conversation in an AL West that looks difficult. One of the things Daniels has done better than almost any other GM is built tremendous depth in the system.

Last season revealed holes in the upper parts of the system, but when the Rangers fast-tracked some of their kids, they passed every test and seem poised to contribute at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Kids don’t come with guarantees. Kids can disappoint. Kids can also do amazing things. Teams counting on young players–for instance, Tampa Bay–aren’t going to be favorites because of the unknown factor.

The Rangers weren’t going to be a playoff favorite even with Darvish at his best. They don’t appear to be as good as the Angels and Mariners and probably aren’t as good as the A’s.

Now they’ve got to recalibrate things again. Some of those kids may be called on sooner than expected. But the Rangers are more prepared to absorb an injury like this one than most other clubs.

Matt Harvey hits 99 mph and looked like his usual dominant self

“Things felt so good that the fact that I did have surgery was completely out of my mind.”

–Matt Harvey

It began with a sweet, sweet scene out in the bullpen before the game. As Matt Harvey warmed up, the Mets pitching staff gathered behind him, and when he was done, they surrounded him for a brief prep rally/welcome back moment.

And then he was off and running.

He touched 99 mph and was consistently in the 96-98 mph range with his fastball. He threw a couple of nasty curveballs. And he needed just 25 pitches to finish his two perfect innings. He struck out four, including one on a curve.

“The big thing was throwing strikes and not walking anyone,” Harvey said. “Those are the things you try and work on, especially hearing things about guys going through this process. Tough command.  That was the big thing I was focusing on and pretty happy about it.”

The Mets still have worries about Harvey, beginning with how his right elbow holds up in the wake of Tommy John surgery and missing the entire 2013 season. They worry that he’ll overdo it, so they’re slowing him down as much as possible.

On the other hand, he’s special. He’s always going to be different. He’s got that personality, too. He’s always going to be in the middle of things. Afterwards, he admitted he’d missed it all terribly.

“It was tough,” he told SNY. “I love being out there. not being able to do that was very tough at times.”

This was his first game in 560 days. It was a first step, nothing more. It’ll be weeks and weeks before we know for sure if Matt Harvey is back on his previous career path.

When we last saw him–on August 24, 2013–he was one of the two or three best pitchers in baseball. Let’s review:

  • He was No. 1 in FIP in 2013 at 2.00. That’s one of the purest ways to evaluate a pitcher apart from the circumstances that impact so many of his numbers.
  • He was No. 2 in WHIP at 0.93, trailing on Clayton Kershaw (0.92).
  • He was third with a 6.16 K/BB ratio.

Now for the good stuff:

  • His fastball was No. 1 in the majors at 95.8 mph, according to Fangraphs.com
  • His slider was No. 1 at 89.9 mph.
  • His curveball was No. 1 at 83.5 mph.

We love the art of pitching. We love someone’s ability to throw strikes and change speeds and to keep hitters off balance. But there’s nothing as compelling as a guy who throws the hell out of the baseball.

That’s the guy who challenges hitters, who is unafraid to make it me versus you. There’s a swagger to those kinds of guys. And that’s the other interesting part about Matt Harvey.

He carries himself in a way that may make him the most interesting athlete in New York if he can stay on the field. He’s not just good. He knows he’s good.

He carries himself like a star, and so this summer every single start he makes at Citi Field is going to be an event. We have to walk when he steps onto the mound because there just might be something we’ve never seen before.

Guys like Matt Harvey are good for the game. He may annoy the Mets at times with his swagger, but as Tony La Russa once said, “All the great ones are just a little bit different.”

The Mets are so optimistic that they’re good enough to contend again. They’ve got young pitching stacked up and a healthy David Wright and a packed farm system.

And if Harvey is healthy and if he’s at the front of that rotation, the Mets could end up being can’t miss television. And so on Friday afternoon, Matt Harvey made a meaningless exhibition game anything but.

A-Rod experiment rolls on.

“I’m just excited to be playing baseball again. It’s going to take two or three weeks for me to kind of get a gauge of where I am.” 

_ Alex Rodriguez

In the end, that’s all that matters. Can Alex Rodriguez still play? Can he help the Yankees win? When we last saw him in 2013, he looked like a guy with nothing left in the tank.

There’ll always a circus aspect to his presence, and there’s nothing he can do about that. But the Yankees have so much professional in their clubhouse that it’s not going to matter.

As Yankees manager Joe Girardi said on the first day of Spring Training, dealing with flurries of news and potential distractions is part of the experience.

A-Rod passed his first test earlier this week when he got a two-strike single in his first at-bat and drew a walk. But we really won’t know for weeks, as we figure out if his body will hold up and if he can still be a productive big league player.

“You just want to see his at-bats as he goes on, that he feels more comfortable,” Girardi said. “That he sees pitches. I don’t make too much out of players’ at-bats the first couple of weeks because they’re just getting back into it. I’ve said all along we’re going to wait to judge Alex. It’s not fair. He hasn’t played in two years.

“At-bats aren’t easy for a lot of guys this time of the year. Trying to get your timing. Guys are changing speeds. Sometimes, they’re command isn’t as great, and at-bats can be uncomfortable.”

He’s working at both first base and third base, but it’s unclear when he’ll play the field. If he has a role on the 2015 Yankees, it’s as a Designated Hitter.

Here’s what A-Rod had to say earlier this week…

  • “We want to get as many at-bats as possible. Yet, we don’t want to rush it.”
  • “It’s going to take time. I think two or three weeks from now I’ll have a much better idea. Right now, it’s about getting into playing shape.”
  • “Yeah, I was a little nervous. It’s been a long time since I put on the pinstripes. It’s definitely fun to have ‘em back on.”
  • “For me, the most incredible thing has been all the good-luck texts, emails and good wishes I’ve had from so many people. I never dreamed I’d get this kind of support. That part of it has been humbling.”
  • “Once you hit rock bottom, anytime you hear a few cheers these days is a pleasant surprise. That makes it better.”
  • “I love the game, and I’v been away from it for a long time. But it’s great to be back and have a bat in my mind.”
  • “I’m having fun. This is as much fun as I’ve had in a long time in Spring Training. Just feeling really grateful that I get to play the game that I love.”

In praise of the St. Louis Cardinals

http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=12334983

They do things right. That’s not just winning baseball game, either. Obviously, that’s where it starts. In the last four seasons, the Cardinals have won 396 of those, postseason included. That’s 13 more than any other team in baseball, 29 more than any other National League team.

In the last 15 seasons, the Cardinals have been to the postseason 11 times. In that time, they’ve won six division championships, four NL pennants and two World Series. When the Cardinals and Giants played in the NLCS for the second time in three years last fall, it was a matchup of two franchises that might be the gold standard for all of baseball.

In terms of the ballpark experience and community involvement and creativity and innovation, the Cardinals take a backseat to no franchise in professional sports. That attitude begins with the owner, Bill DeWitt, Jr., but it permeates an entire organization. That’s why so many players will tell you their years with the Cardinals were the best of their career.

Is there a burden? Yes, there is. Players are held accountable by the media. And the St. Louis media has a high standard. That’s a result of the Cardinals having set the bar so high. If you’re a player or a manager, you have to be able to shut out the noise and do your job.

The Cardinals are again favored to win the NL Central. That would be their third straight and give them five straight seasons in the playoffs. They’re not without questions, especially among young players like Matt Adams and Kolten Wong. Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia are recovering from injuries. Is there enough offense? Is the bullpen stable enough?

On the other hand, the Cardinals have fewer questions than any other NL Central team. The Cubs are a hot pick because of all those kids. The Reds could be very good if they get their main guys back on the field. The Pirates are good enough to make a third straight playoff appearance.

So nothing is guaranteed. But with another Spring Training here, the Cardinals are as usual one of the organizations every other will be measured against.

To understand baseball’s competitive balance, the American League is a good place to start.

There isn’t one clear favorite in the three American League divisions. Better yet, at least 13 of the 15 AL teams view making the playoffs as a reasonable goal for 2015.

This is the place to come to better understand baseball’s new competitive balance landscape. Expectations abound.

Let’s begin in the American League East. The Red Sox will begin Spring Training favored to make another worst-to-first run.

There’s also a case to be made for the Blue Jays and Rays. Only a knucklehead would count out the Orioles. As for that other AL East team…

The Yankees believe that landscape marked the end of a significant drought for their player development system with Dellin Betances, David Phelps, Shane Greene, Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren and Chase Whitley all contributing. Michael Pineda deserves to be on this list as well since he was acquired for Jesus Montero, then the pride of the Yankee farm system.

There’s more on the way: second baseman Rob Refsnyder, left-hander Jacob Lindgren, right-hander Jose Ramirez and outfielders Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores.

Nothing is guaranteed, but this is a longer list of potentially big league-ready prospects than the Yankees have had awhile. And the point is a reminder that while the Yankees might be a logical pick for third, fourth or fifth in the AL East, it would be a huge mistake to overlook them.

The Tigers will be favored in the AL Central, but the Indians, Royals and White Sox are good enough to win. The Mariners and Angels may have separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the AL West, but the Rangers believe if they get a healthy and productive season from Prince Fielder, they’ve got a chance to be as good as any team in baseball.

And this is a reminder that it’s never been like this before in baseball. At least 24 teams have realistic expectations of getting to the postseason.

Last September 1st, 17 of baseball’s 30 teams were within 5 1/2 games of a postseason berth. In the last five seasons, 20 of 30 teams have played at least one postseason series, and 12 different franchises have been to the World Series the last 10 seasons.

Can A-Rod still play? Does anything else matter?

Now that everyone has decided to play nice with one another, the Alex Rodriguez story circles back to where we were when we last saw him in uniform.

Does he have anything left in the tank?

Given that he’s 39 years old and hasn’t played in a Major League game in 505 days, this seems to be the most interesting part of his return to the Yankees.

He finished 2013 in a 3-for-39 slump. He hit .200 against left-handed pitching that season. He batted .120 in the 2012 postseason and didn’t start the final two games of the ALCS sweep by the Tigers. Since winning the AL MVP Award in 2007, his OPS has declined six straight years, to .771 in 2013.

If you wanted to make the case that this is a guy who is at the end of the road, that’s easy to do. On the other hand, he hasn’t been healthy. He has had an entire season to recover from hip surgery. Even if he shows enough in Spring Training to convince the Yankees he can contribute, it’ll be months before we know if his body can withstand the grind of a full season.

The Yankees have proceeded as if they don’t think he can help them. But it appears he’ll at least be in Spring Training. From the beginning, I couldn’t imagine he’d return to the Yankees after all that had happened. At the moment, though, it appears he’ll be in Spring Training, and if the two sides have gone this far down the road, the Yankees seemingly haven’t closed the door.

He’ll attract a lot of media, but he’s not going to be a distraction. He’s just not. One of the things that has become apparent in recent seasons is that Yankees manager Joe Girardi is really good at his job. Some men have the ability to lead other men, and Girardi is one of these.

He has been able to keep the noise out in the hallway and make the clubhouse environment as normal as is ever possible around the Yankees. General Manager Brian Cashman has done a terrific job of getting the right kind of people: Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Chase Headley, etc.

These guys are consummate professionals in terms of preparation, play, media relations, etc. So while A-Rod will be a story to watch during Spring Training, he won’t interrupt the larger goal, that is, the turning of a page and moving into a post-Jeter, post-Rivera world.

The Yankees are a popular choice to finish fourth in the AL East, behind the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays. Their list of unknowns is long: age, health, rotation, second base, shortstop. If Sabathia is healthy and productive, if Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow is sound and if the second base/shortstop situation gets figured out, the Yankees are in good shape.

Best of all, their farm system is in better shape than it has been in years, and so we will hear the names of second baseman Rob Refsnyder, right-hander Luis Severino, left-hander Jacob Lindgren, right-hander Jose Ramirez and others.

Despite the lack of a splashy off-season move, it’s easy to project the Yankees into the postseason. But theirs is a high-wire act. So while A-Rod will get plenty of attention in Spring Training, a larger picture of the franchise will begin to emerge.

The NL West still belongs to the Dodgers unless it doesn’t.

The Rockies and Diamondbacks may end up deciding how many NL West teams make the postseason. If they’re bad teams, the division would have a decent shot at getting three teams into the playoffs. That’s no sure thing, especially given how much pitching the Diamondbacks have accumulated.

Also, if Mark Trumbo is healthy and Yasmany Tomas is the real deal, the Diamondbacks would be headed in the right direction, and that would be bad news for those Wild Card berths. On the other hand, the NL Central has five solid teams fighting it out, and that competitive balance is going to take its toll on the standings.

Meanwhile, in the NL East, the Phillies and Braves might end up being worse than the Diamondbacks and Rockies. Bud Selig’s legacy is that he reshaped the landscape to give every team a chance to compete. That reshaping has given us some chaotic finishes the last few seasons, but it has made preseason forecast more meaningless than usual.

The Dodgers will probably still be the NL West favorites despite San Diego’s signing of James Shields and the earlier acquisitions of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris, Brandon Morrow, Clint Barmes and Josh Johnson. I like typing all those names just to remind myself what an amazing few months new Padres GM A.J. Preller has had.

The Dodgers aren’t without questions. But the top of the rotation is so strong and the defense so much improved that it’s almost impossible to pick against them. It was fascinating watching new President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman remake a club that won 94 games.

He did it, though, and beautifully, acquiring Jimmy Rollins to play short and Howie Kendrick to play second and Brandon McCarthy to slip into the rotation behind Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu. If rookie center fielder Joc Pederson is the real deal and if Carl Crawford stays healthy, the Dodgers may be the best team in the game, an exciting, interesting little club that does everything at a high level.

There’s a case to be made for either the Giants or Padres, but both those clubs have some questions. For instance:

  • Will the Giants have enough offense in the wake of Pablo Sandoval’s departure? They probably need full and productive seasons from Brandon Belt and Angel Pagan. They need Joe Panik to continue to progress. And they need Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki to be productive.
  • The Giants have a deep rotation, but they’re counting on Matt Cain again being Matt Cain and Tim Hudson spinning his magic one more time. These aren’t huge questions, and given that GM Brian Sabean has a knack for filling holes and that manager Bruce Bochy makes it all work and that the core of players are tough, resilient and winners, the Giants are again in a good place.
  • The Padres need Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and Ian Kennedy to combine for close to 100 starts. If that happens, the Padres would have a chance to win the division. Offensively, the questions are whether Wil Myers and Will Middlebrooks will bounce back from tough seasons. If you look at the Padres from a certain angle, you see a team capable of winning 95 games. But there’s the potential for disappointment, too.
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