Major League Baseball 2015 Wild Card Games

The Major League Baseball regular season is over and the playoffs are ready to begin with the American League Wild Card game tonight. The New York Yankees, the most successful team in the history of baseball take on the young, upstart Houston Astros, who only recently moved into the league.

The Astros struggled in the final weeks of the season and barely hung on by a single game, over the Los Angeles Angels. They can thank an improbable 5-run rally with two outs in the ninth inning against the Angels on September 13 for making the difference between playing tonight and watching.

The Yankees also limped to the finish, after losing their MVP Mark Texeira to injury. They are also jarred by the news that CC Sabathia has checked into rehab for alcohol abuse. This will only be relevant if the Yankees survive beyond today. One game is definitely a crap shoot, but in a battle of young versus old, youth is usually the better bet. I’ll expect the Astros to advance.

Personally, I think these are the two weakest teams in the playoffs. Normally, as the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals demonstrated last year, any team that reaches the post season has the potential to win it all. But I would be stunned, if the Astros or Yankees reach the 2015 World Series.

In contrast, the National League Wild Card game might be a matchup of the two best teams in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs are two young teams on the rise. As fate would have it, they shared a division with the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals. So Gerritt Cole will face-off against Jake Arrieta in a winner-take-all game that will be no fun for hitters. If the Pirates have a weakness, it’s their porous defense. In a tight ballgame it might cost them. Arrieta has been virtually unhittable in the second half of the season. Just ask the Dodgers. So the Cubs have a good chance to advance. Aside from Pirate fans, who wouldn’t want to see a Cubs versus Cardinals brawl.


The National League Playoff Races are Over!

In the National League the New York Mets sweep of the Washington Nationals essentially ended the hunt for playoff positions. Although mathematically still alive, the Nationals and the Giants would require miraculous finishes to earn a spot in the post season. Seemingly, all that’s left is to see if the Pirates can make a run at the Cardinals, and who earns home field advantage.

The margin between contention and elimination is remarkably slim. The Nationals held leads in all three games of their series with the Mets, but managed to lose each one. The most egregious loss being the second game, where they had a 7-1 lead until the seventh inning. How different the race would look if the Nationals had won even two out of three games.

Similarly, a week and a half ago the Giants were very much in contention, entering their series with the Dodgers trailing by 3-1/2 games. But they lost all three of their games to the Dodgers, with each game decided by one run, including extra innings in the first game. In a 162 game season, it’s amazing how the fates of four teams can turn on three games.

Mike Trout wins All Star MVP again!

The last 5 games pitcher Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Dodgers has appeared in, he has not allowed a run. Of course, he hasn’t faced Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Mike Trout in any of those games. Leading off the Major League All Star Game Trout hit an opposite field home run to start the scoring. But his key contribution may have been his speed in avoiding hitting into a double play in the 5th inning. Extending that inning allowed him and team mate Albert Pujols to score the go ahead runs as Texas first baseman Prince Fielder and Kansas outfielder Lorenzo Cain got 2 out base hits off of Clayton Kershaw. That gave the American League a lead they would not relinquish as they went on to win 6 to 3. Fielder and Cain deserved MVP consideration, but the award went to Trout who became the first player to win back-to-back MVP awards. It probably won’t be his last. He has gotten a base hit in his first at bat of all four of his All Star appearances. In fact he has completed a cycle with a single, a double, a triple last year and the home run this year. Other highlights from the game were home runs by the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen and the Twins’ Brian Dozier. On the pitching side the performances of the Mets’ Jacob deGrom and the 100+ mile per hour fastballs of hometown Reds closer Aroldis Chapman grabbed your attention.

Preview of the National League Central Division

The 2015 Major League Baseball season begins with a match-up of traditional rivals, the St Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals are a perennial contender. They have reached the League Championship Series for 4 straight years including a World Series Championship in 2011. With the addition of Jason Heyward and no notable off-season losses, the Cardinals should remain a playoff contender this season. The Chicago Cubs are the lovable losers, who are hoping this is the year that they finally break the 106 year drought. They have reason for optimism with new manager Joe Maddon, who is considered one of the best managers in baseball, the addition of free agent pitcher Jon Lester to lead the starting rotation and top prospect Kris Bryant waiting in the wings to join the youthful talents of Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro and Jorge Soler. The question is how long will it take for the Cubs young talent to mature? Many players take about 3 seasons to gain the experience to perform consistently in the big leagues. If that’s the case, you might want to consider the Cubs in 2017.


As for the rest of the National League Central, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost the wild card playoff last season to the Giants, should again be a factor. Led by one of the most dynamic players in the National League, Andrew McCutchen and the pitching of Francisco Liriano plus the rising talent of righthander Gerrit Cole and outfielder Starling Marte, the Pirates are positioned to have another winning season. The question mark for the Milwaukee Brewers is the health of post- Biogenesis Ryan Braun. His presence with Aramis Ramirez, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy could create an effective offense. The starting pitching with Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse is solid, but the bullpen without Francisco Rodriguez is a concern. The Cincinnati Reds have a solid number one starter in Johnny Cueto, but aside from that there are a lot of question marks. Have Joey Votto and Jay Bruce recovered from their knee problems? Is the real Billy Hamilton the .285 hitter of the first half or the .200 hitter of the second half? Can Marlon Byrd continue to produce at age 37? Can anyone in the bullpen outside of Aroldis Chapman pitch effectively?


Why did the Cubs demote Kris Bryant?

It’s the final week of spring training and teams around Major League Baseball are making their final decisions about which players will be on their opening day rosters. It’s not unusual for young prospects to be sent down to the minor leagues despite good spring training performances. A good batting average or a low ERA might have been accumulated against other minor leaguers. There could be signs that a hitter struggles with off-speed pitches or a pitcher struggles to throw an off-speed pitch. Defensive skills or decision-making that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet might be below par.

The point is that there are lot of intangibles outside of statistics that determine whether a team thinks a young player is ready for the big leagues. So it’s unusual when the demotion of a minor leaguer gets the media attention that Kris Bryant received when the Cubs reassigned him to minor league camp. A .425 batting average and an eye-popping 9 home runs for the young third baseman considered the top prospect in baseball certainly didn’t hurt his chances of making the team. Also, the current third baseman Luis Valbuena isn’t blocking the advancement of Bryant. What raises eyebrows is the circumstance surrounding Bryant’s free agency eligibility. By keeping him in the minors for just 12 days, the Cubs can delay Bryant from becoming eligible for free agency by one year. I’m curious what Cubs general manager Theo Epstein gave as an explanation for the reason Bryant needs more time in the minor leagues. Is there a legitimate reason or are the Cubs simply trying to save money? While the latter might make business sense, there does seem to be something unsavory about taking advantage of the rules to deprive Bryant of a deserved place in the Major Leagues. I wonder if he and his agent, Scott Boras, will remember that in 2021.

2015 MLB Hall of Fame Inductees

The-National-Baseball-Hall-of-FameTM-2015-Wall-Calendar-Cooperstown-Collection-0Congratulations to Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz for their selection by the baseball writers to be inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. The three pitchers were on the ballot for the first time. As multiple Cy Young Award winners, Johnson and Martinez were obvious choices. Smoltz was a key member of the Atlanta Braves dominant pitching staff of the 90’s with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavin. He accumulated over 200 wins and transformed himself into a dominant closer in the latter part of his career. Biggio started his career as a catcher, but good running speed led to his conversion into a second baseman. He spent a lot of time as a key member of the “Killer B’s” in Houston. A pesky hitter, he accumulated over 3,000 hits.

Toronto and Seattle Make Moves to Win in 2015

1993 MLB World Series Game 6 Toronto Blue Jays vs. Philadelphia Phillies

The American League East continues to be a hotbed of activity in the off season, as the Toronto Blue Jays made moves to try to keep up with the Red Sox. They signed Russell Martin, the best catcher in this year’s free agent market to a five-year 82 million dollar contract. Then they traded third baseman Brett Lawrie and 3 prospects for Oakland’s All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson. For most teams, it seems strange to trade your top player when you are already a playoff team. But Billy Bean and the Athletics front office are always thinking of maximizing their talent with a tight budget. The key was acquiring Lawrie. Although he was injured last season, he is younger than Donaldson and the A’s expect Lawrie to make a full recovery. They are projecting that when he’s healthy he will have power numbers that make up for much of what they lost by trading Donaldson. Lawrie also has a lower salary and if their scouts did their homework well, the prospects they added will help them to stay competitive in the future. The Blue Jays move indicates they are trying to win now.

The team the Blue Jays and Red Sox are trying to chase down, the Baltimore Orioles, took a hit as Nelson Cruz, who led the Major Leagues with 40 home runs last season, left to sign a four year deal for 57 million dollars to join the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners who came up a game short of making the wild card spot have become big spenders. Last year Robinson Cano signed a huge contract and reports are that Kyle Seager will ink a 7 year 100 million dollar deal soon.

Rumor has it that the Orioles are interested in trading for outfielder, Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers, in an effort to make up for the loss of Cruz. Kemp was one of the hottest hitters in the National League during the second half of the season, so

the Dodgers are not about to give him away. The Dodgers are looking for a shortstop to replace Hanley Ramirez, and they’d like to upgrade the catching position and their pitching. If the Orioles can address a couple of those needs, they might have a deal.

Red Sox Heat Up the Hot Stove League

2013-World-Series-Collectors-Edition DVDThe “Hot Stove League” just got cooking, thanks to the Boston Red Sox. When familiar names start shifting between contending teams, things get interesting. In this case Pablo Sandoval, third baseman and cornerstone of the World Champion San Francisco Giants offense, lured by a 100 million dollar contract, departed the “City by the Bay” for “Bean Town.” It’s a blow to the Giants and their fans, who had lovingly christened Sandoval with the nickname “Kung Fu Panda.” It’ll be interesting to see if Red Sox fans embrace Pablo in a similar way. As we saw in the playoffs, when Sandoval is hot, he’s difficult to keep off the bases, but he’s a streaky hitter and can go through droughts where he’s chasing bad pitches. If he starts off next season on one of those, it’ll be interesting to see how patient Red Sox fans will be.

The Giants arch rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers, also surrendered a big name to the Red Sox as Hanley Ramirez signed a 4 year 88 million dollar contract with a 5th year option. In this instance, Dodger fans were not surprised and probably won’t be shedding any tears over this departure. Although a formidable offensive force when healthy, that disclaimer applied too frequently to Hanley. His offensive numbers declined this past season as he was plagued by an assortment of nagging injuries. Defensively, he was a liability at shortstop. His error was the only flaw in Clayton Kershaw’s no-hitter. Rumor is the Red Sox are going to try to move him to left field, plus he can be used at DH.

For Red Sox fans who are excited over their new acquisitions, a word of caution: Sandoval is a good player, but not a superstar, and Ramirez is a gamble in terms of his health and his disposition. Expensive free agent signings feel good in the off season, but they don’t guarantee championships. Now, if they get Jon Lester back…

Hey! If you’re an optimistic Red Sox fan, or you know one, check out Baseball Galore and More for some Red Sox gear.

MLB: Let the Changes Begin!

Major League Baseball will slowly wind down the 2014 season with various award announcements over a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, most fans are thinking about next year and what can be done to put their favorite team in the position that the San Francisco Giants occupy. The focus will be on free agents like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields, although the value of the latter two may have gone down with their post season performances.

But first, the management needs to be in place. The Minnesota Twins named Paul Molitor as their new manager and more notably, acclaimed manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and joined the Chicago Cubs. Maddon probably saw the writing on the wall in Tampa Bay with poor attendance, the trade of David Price, and the departure of General Manager Andrew Friedman. People think so much of Maddon that the odds of the Cubs winning their first championship in over a century has dropped from 50 to 1 down to 20 to 1. Maddon took the young talent in Tampa Bay and molded them into a winning team with multiple playoff appearances. Cubs fans are hoping he can take their young talent and similarly shape them into a winning team. With more resources in Chicago, the dream is to win the last game of the season. If they do, Maddon might be regarded as the greatest manager ever.

Probably more important, but far less attention-grabbing are changes to the front office. After all, the key to a winning team is having people who can evaluate and acquire the best talent. Because of “Moneyball,” Billy Beane might be the most famous of a largely unknown club of General Managers in baseball. Despite low revenues and constant turnover of players, Beane keeps the Athletics competitive, though not quite able to advance through the playoffs. Well, some of that brain power left Oakland as Assistant General Manager Farhad Zaidi joined the Los Angeles Dodgers to become their General Manager. Hired by Friedman who recently became President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, you could see the team shifting into phase 2 of rebuilding in the wake of the McCourt ownership. McCourt’s cost-cutting had weakened Dodgers scouting and minor league development. Not willing to go through an extended rebuilding process like the one the Kansas City Royals went through, the Dodgers spent millions acquiring high-priced talent. But, the long-term plan was always to create a pipeline of talent from the farm system and by plucking Friedman from the Rays and Zaidi from the Athletics the Dodgers have added people who know how to do that. The rest of the country may not be paying much attention to these changes now, but don’t be surprised if you see the Dodgers repeating the success that their rival, the Giants, have just achieved.

Bumgarner Leads the Giants to Another Championship

Congratulation to the San Francisco Giants for their 3rd Championship in the last 5 years! Congratulations to the Kansas City Royals for a valiant effort. Game 7 of the 2014 World Series was similar to Game 3, which also began with starting pitchers Tim Hudson of the Giants and Jeremy Guthrie of the Royals. The games were close and ended with a 3-2 score, except the Giants won this time.

They can thank Madison Bumgarner for this championship. His performance throughout the playoffs ranks up there with Orel Hershiser in 1988 or Sandy Koufax in 1965. First he won the Wild Card Game to begin the Giants postseason run; he picks up a National League MVP award; then seals the whole deal with 5 innings of shutout relief on two days of rest to earn the World Series MVP Award. By the way, Chevrolet needs someone with more media savvy to present that award. Anyway, Bumgarner’s performance trumped the efforts of the Royals relievers, Herrera, Davis and Holland.

The key play of the game came in the third inning when Giants second baseman Joe Panik made a diving stop of a ball hit by Eric Hosmer and using his glove, tossed the ball to Brandon Crawford to begin a double play. Instead of two men on and nobody out, the Royals had no one on base.

You could second-guess whether the Royals should have given away an out when Bumgarner first entered the game in the 5th inning. Alcides Escobar bunted on a 2-0 pitch to move Omar Infante to second, and a weak hitting Nori Aoki batted next. But considering that the Royals hit into double plays the previous two innings, you could empathize with manager Ned Yost’s thinking. Also, there was a question as to whether Alex Gordon should have gambled and tried to score on the error with 2 outs in the 9th inning, But it’s hard to defy years of training that tells you not to go, if a normal throw could easily get you out, in the hope that a bad throw will happen.

Most managerial second guessing has to do with deciding which relief pitcher to use. In the case of the Royals, it was hard for Yost to make a bad choice. His relievers did their jobs.

As for the Giants, they followed their blueprint for success. They are very efficient on offense, as they showed when they drove in their first two runs on sacrifice flys. They may not get many opportunities to score, but they find some way to capitalize when they do. Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence are as pesky a pair of hitters as you can find. Even if you throw a ball outside the strike zone, they might hit it. They are also fundamentally solid on defense. You see Pence running down balls and Sandoval picking anything hit his way. Of course Panik’s diving play in the 3rd was a potential game saver. Finally, they have a good bullpen, Although, Bumgarner usually isn’t a part of that.

Which brings up another point. The Giants have had tremendous success winning 9 straight playoff series. But the playoffs really are played differently than the regular season. Obviously, Bumgarner would never come in to save a game in the regular season. Also, Tim Hudson would not have been relieved in the second inning. He’d have to stay in longer and risk giving up a few more runs. In fact, watching the Giants starting pitching outside of Bumgarner, you begin to understand why they were a wild card team.

Are they a dynasty? Does it matter? Shortcomings during the regular season point out that they aren’t a dominant team. But when they make it into the playoffs, they know how to win. I guess we’ll see them again in 2016.