In praise of Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols had played one season of professional baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals invited him to Spring Training in 2001. One thing was certain: He was not going to make the team.

First, the Cardinals were loaded.

Second, Pujols had played three games above Class A ball.

While the Cardinals loved the kid, they simply didn’t believe it would be fair to throw him right to the wolves. At the time, teams believed that rushing a player through the minors could permanently harm his career.

And then Pujols began hitting line drives.

He sprayed them all over the field. His swing was disciplined, his strength and speed incredible. There was a seriousness about him that impressed everyone.

And the work ethic?

He was relentless in the batting cage and the weight room and on the field. Even now when you ask teammates about Pujols, they mention many of the same things:

  • They’ve never seen anyone work harder. If you show up in the Angels clubhouse around 5 p.m. or so, you might find Pujols covered in sweat, having just taken swing after swing in the indoor batting cage.
  • His swing is so precise that he almost never lunges or looks uncomfortable. It’s as if he controls at-bats the moment he steps into the box.

Back to that first spring with the Cardinals. Right in those first days, Tony La Russa realized he had a player who had both talent and a burning desire to maximize that talent.

At some point during spring training Mark McGwire told La Russa, “If you send him back to the minors, it’ll be one of the worst mistakes you’ve ever made.”

Still, until Bobby Bonilla got hurt, it looked like the Cardinals would send him back down. The Cardinals adamantly say this is not so, that Pujols made the club on his own.

I tend to trust the later. I remember standing behind a batting cage with La Russa that spring and watching Pujols hit. In perhaps the highest compliment one manager has ever paid one of his players, La Russa just stood there and watched.

When I asked a question or two, he just nodded toward the cage. We were both seeing one of those guys who comes along every generation or so.

Fourteen years later, Pujols, 35, is on his way to the Hall of Fame. He has slowed down some in recent years thanks to an assortment of leg injuries.

At times, it has been painful to watch him run the bases. But it has been a joy to watch him swing the bat. That swing may not be as feared as it once was, but it’s still a thing of beauty.

He’s now 16th on the all-time home run list with 537 and 30th on the all-time RBI list with 1,635. His .9878 OPS is the ninth-highest of all-time. Pujols is also a nine-time All-Star, a two-time World Series winner and a three-time MVP.

In his 15th season, Pujols has taken a backseat to Mike Trout in terms of numbers and awards. But his .852 OPS is his highest in three years and still commands respect from teammates and opponents alike. It remains a joy to watch him play.

When players and managers argue…

One of the many things I love about Phil Garner is how he handled tense times. For instance, there was one time when he went to the mound to remove a pitcher from the game. Only this pitcher wasn’t ready leave. And for a tense second or two, he refused to leave.

I’m not naming names. Okay, I am: Chris Bosio, who is now the Cubs pitching coach and also one of the real good guys in the game.

Bosio was a tenacious competitor as a pitcher. In other words, he could be a red ass. He’s also a tenacious competitor as a pitching coach.

You probably know guys like Chris Bosio. His teammates and coaches and managers loved him. Those guys in the other dugout probably didn’t.

Anyway after this one game, Garner, then the first-year manager of the Brewers in 1992, summoned Bosio into his office.

And they started to scream.

And scream.

And scream some more.

Here’s the best part of the story. After they’d gone back and forth awhile, and then some more and then some more, Garner sat back down in his chair.

“Bosio,” he said, “you’ve worn me out.”

And that was that.

But they reached an agreement.

“I know you didn’t want to come out of that game,” Garner said.

Bosio nodded.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Garner said. “I’ll leave you in games, but you have to promise to tell me when I need to come get you.”

Boise agreed.

As player-manager disagreements go, this had one of the great outcomes of all-time. Bosio was 10-2 with a 2.94 ERA after that confrontation.

Apart from that, the two men became lifelong friends.

I thought of Scrapiron and Bosio this week in the wake of two player-manager confrontations.

One of them had a very nice ending. The other is still unfolding.

First, the good one. When Rangers manager Jeff Banister approached outfielder Shin Soo-Choo after a loss to discuss a defensive play, the player bristled.

He said he didn’t appreciate being asked about the play. He didn’t like reporters asking about it, either.

And the next day, it was over. Banister and Choo met, discussed it and moved on.

“This is like a family here,” Choo said after the meeting. “We want to do everything the right way, but that doesn’t always happen. The important thing is that we are on the same page.”

And there’s Red Sox starter Wade Miley.

He blew up in the dugout when John Farrell removed him from the game. I would chalk that moment up to a heat-of-the-moment incident.

He has had a poor season and would have preferred to be left in the game to figure things out. His big mistake was that his tantrum was caught on cameras, thus making it a story.

His second–and bigger mistake–came after the game when he pretty clearly declined to admit he was wrong. Meanwhile, Farrell handled it perfectly. Like Banister, he mentioned the player’s competitive fires.

If Miley had admitted his mistake, it could have largely defused the situation. His refusal to do so means the incident will linger for a day or two around a team that is seven games under .500 and seven games out of first place.

Again, it’s easy to understand that he was angry at being taken out of the game. It’s not so easy to understand that even after having some time to think about it, he declined to admit he was wrong.

Hopefully, 24 hours later, he feels differently.

Regarding Troy Tulowitzki, we may not be asking the right question.

Troy Tulowitzki represents the exact kind of player that many teams either can’t or won’t consider. Don’t interpret this as a knock on the player. He’s one of baseball’s best shortstops and would make plenty of teams better. Problem is, the math changes dramatically when his age, injury history and contract are considered.

Here are some numbers:

  • He has approximately $115 million remaining on a contract that runs through the 2020 season. He’ll make $20 million a season between 2015 and 2019. He’s baseball’s 25th-highest player this season. Only one shortstop, Jose Reyes at $22 million, will make more.
  • Among all shortstops, he’s ninth in OPS, 10th in home runs and 13th in OBP. He’s first in doubles and 25th in Fangraphs.com’s defensive rating system.
  • He has played an average of 93 games the last six seasons and 74 the last four.

So is he worth it? He played just 91 games last season, but was tremendous with a 1.035 OPS. Yes, Coors Field factored into those numbers. He had a 1.246 OPS at home, .811 on the road.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Even if the contract wasn’t there, plenty of baseball people love Andrelton Simmons, Freddy Galvis, Erick Aybar and Jhonny Peralta, perhaps ranking all of them ahead of Tulowitzki. Marcus Semien and Addison Russell are highly regarded young guys. Starlin Castro would be much in demand if the Cubs wanted to move him.

Again, this is no knock on Tulowitzki. He’s a tremendous player and surely would be energized by moving to a winning environment. But it’s not just about the talent. It’s the age and money and injuries, too.

The Yankees and Mets would seem to be the best fits, and the Mets are especially interesting because they clearly have the young prospects to pull off such a deal. But while Mets management has been looking at the shortstop market for at least a year, they don’t seem willing to take on the risks that would come with Tulo.

The Yankees seem much more cautious about spending money too and probably have bigger needs in the rotation. Perhaps the only other team that makes sense would be the Padres, who’ve been baseball’s most aggressive club since general manager A.J. Preller came on board.

The Nationals might consider Tulowitzki with Ian Desmond in his walk year. The Nats also have enough young players to make such a deal work if general manager Mike Rizzo decides to shake things up. But like others, Rizzo covets his prospects and won’t deal them unless he’s convinced the deal would vault the Nationals deep into October.

At this point, no deal seems imminent. Even though certain general managers are starting to look their clubs less by the day, they don’t seem inclined to make the kind of commitment (money and prospects) Tulowitzki would require. Things can change quickly, so stay tuned.

Most interesting team in baseball? The Tampa Bay Rays might fit that description. As usual.

No team should feel better about itself than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are 1 1/2 games out of first place despite a huge roster overhaul and a ridiculous number of injuries. At 20-16, they’re four games above .500 for the first time this season after three straight victories over the Yankees.

Their pitching staff is among the best in baseball despite losing starters Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly for the season and not yet getting an inning out of Matt Moore. Meanwhile, their offense is a work in progress, which is another way of saying it hasn’t been very good. Still, as they survey the AL East landscape, the Rays have to be thinking, “Why not us?”

All of this comes after a tumultuous off-season in which two franchise cornerstones departed. President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, who’d been instrumental in making the Rays one of the smartest and most efficient franchises in the game, took the same job with the Dodgers. And then Joe Maddon left to manage the Cubs.

Rays President Matt Silverman took over for Friedman and sprinted into the job by largely taking apart the roster and then putting it back together. When he was done, he was absolutely convinced that the Rays would be good enough to contend again.

They’ve been so consistently good through the years that we’ve come to take their success for granted. That’s perhaps the ultimate tribute to the organization owner Stuart Sternberg constructed. Much like Billy Beane in Oakland, the Rays have given every franchise a blueprint to succeed without spending huge amounts of money. There’s less margin for error, but the Rays are a reminder that smarts and competent people can make up for a lack of resources.

Since the beginning of the 2008 season, only the Yankees and Cardinals have won more regular-season games than the Rays. But the Rays have done it with a payroll that ranks 25th on average. This season, only the Astros and Diamondbacks have smaller payrolls than Tampa Bay’s $75 million.

To focus on what the Rays don’t have is to miss the larger point. They have plenty. First, they’ve got brains. Friedman departed, but his baseball operations staff remained largely intact, and Silverman had been involved at every level. And when he hired a new manager, he went for 37-year-old Kevin Cash, a former backup catcher known throughout the sport for his intelligence and people skills. At this point, it’s hard to see Silverman making a better hire.

And these Rays are pretty much like a lot of those other Rays teams. In Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and rookie Nate Karns at the top of a nice rotation, the Rays have a front three among the best in baseball. The Rays have already used eight starting pitchers and four rookies. They’ve sent five starting pitchers to the Disabled List six times. Yet their rotation leads the AL with a 3.48 ERA.

Resilience? The Rays have used 38 players, including 13 rookies, tops in the majors, according to Elias Sports Bureau. They have eight rookies on the roster at the moment. Seven players have made their Rays debut, including five who make their major league debut.

Tampa Bay’s bullpen is loaded with power arms, including closer Jake McGee, who was just activated after missing the first six weeks of the season recovering from elbow surgery.

(The Rays have allowed two runs or less 19 times, which is four more than any other team.)

What makes the Rays intriguing is that their young guys–outfielders Steven Souza and Kevin Kiermaier and starter Alex Colome–have a chance to get better as they become more comfortable in the big leagues. Rookies have hit 13 of their 31 home runs and started 15 of their 36 games.

While they may be far from a perfect team, there may not be one in the AL East. Like the Yankees, Tampa Bay’s strengths may more than offset its questionable areas. if they end up back in the playoffs, it would be the fifth time in eight seasons, which qualifies as sustained success. And if they do, it would be the sweetest one since 2008 when they shocked the baseball world by going from 96 losses to 97 victories and an American League pennant.

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.”
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