The last week and a half has been a rough one for Major League Baseball to say the least. On Monday, 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun willingly took a suspension for the rest of the season, covering the final 65 games. He won’t receive a paycheck for the rest of the year either and for all intents and purposes he’s going to be a black sheep within the sport and among sportswriters for the rest of his career. Matt Kemp, the runner up for the 2011 MVP award has already called for Braun’s MVP trophy to be returned. “At this point, he lied about it. Got away with it. Tried to lie about it again. … Got caught. … And is still making hundreds of millions of dollars,” said New York Mets pitcher David Aardsma. Reed Johnson of the Atlanta Braves felt that Braun cheated the system and abandoned his fellow players. Suffice to say, the reaction to Braun has been harsh and for the rest of his career it will always be harsh. But you know what?
The man is a sly, sneaky bastard.
Outside of scorn, the only real, tangible punishment that Ryan Braun receives in this whole Biogenesis ordeal is a loss of 65 games or $3,251,366 dollars. That’s a whole lot of money to me and you, but to Braun that’s chump change. He made $6 million last year. He’s going to make $133 million over the life of his contract. That $3.25 million doesn’t matter to him, neither do those 65 games. Milwaukee’s already 20 games out of first in the NL Central. Hell, they’re 15 games out of the second Wild Card spot. That’s an impossible deficit to overcome, so why shouldn’t the Brewers go into all-out tank mode to get a better draft spot in next year’s draft? Braun’s locked into his contract until the end of the decade and he knows this. Why not cut a deal, help your team lose more, and reap the benefits in a couple of years? Yes, the Major League draft is a crapshoot, but it’s still better to be picking in the 1-3 range rather than the 5-7 range.
And the real cherry on top for Mr. Braun is that neither he, nor Major League Baseball, have revealed any details about the suspension. We have no idea what Ryan Braun was on, all we know is that he failed a drug test in October 2011 for elevated testosterone levels. We also have no idea about Braun’s involvement with Biogenesis and their owner Anthony Boesch and we probably never will. It’s great that Braun was suspended without any form of appeal. That, in and of itself, is an admission of guilt. But we still don’t know what, exactly, Braun was guilty of.
Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
Ahh, the offseason. It’s a place where trade rumors swirl around like winds on a blustery day at the beach. It’s a place where Scott Boras circles around said beach like a shark waiting to pounce on whatever chum is foolish enough to hand out a Carl Crawford-sized deal before immediately regretting it. It’s where thrifty front office types scrounge around for that perfectly valuable scrap that’s been long lost in the sand. It’s where Josh Hamilton is tied to the Orioles one minute and the Brewers the next. Rumors get ridiculous, players get paid, general managers lose their minds. One of those interesting rumors floating around the November waters this year has the Dodgers in hot pursuit of outfielder Torii Hunter. This particular tasty morsel of information is also a two-parter. The Dodgers are also believed to be floating right fielder Andre Ethier out on the market, which would be a fascinating move if Los Angeles can pull it off.
Perhaps no team in the history of baseball has ever been as balls-to-the-wall aggressive over the course of both trade deadlines as the Los Angeles Dodgers were this season. The Dodgers’ new ownership, a group including Laker legend Magic Johnson, didn’t even flinch at the thought of picking up $300 million plus worth of player contracts if it meant a shot at immediately competing this season. Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto, and Carl Crawford’s contract were all added to the roster mid-season in the hopes of giving LA the offense and starting pitching depth that manager Don Mattingly would need to make the playoffs.
Well thus far the high-priced replacements have, for the most part, stunk up the joint, going 8-13 since August 25th, the day of Adrian Gonzalez’s first game in Dodger blue. That isn’t to say the Dodgers won’t make the playoffs, because they’re 1 game out after splitting a 4 game set with St. Louis, but unless the newcomers, and Matt Kemp for that matter, start playing a little better, Los Angeles isn’t going anywhere.
With today’s 3-0 defeat at the hands of rival San Francisco, the Dodgers have relinquished sole possession of 1st place in the NL West for the 1st time since April 10th. The team has been slumping ever since Matt Kemp went back on the DL, going 11-14 since May 31st. The team has particularly struggled of late, losing 8 of their last 9. What’s even worse is that the San Francisco Giants have been able to make up 5 games in that amount of time, punctuating their mini-comeback with a 3-game sweep to tie for 1st. The Dodgers were outscored 13-0 by their rival from Northern California, the first time in the history of the franchise that they were shutout in a series of 3 games or more. So why, all of the sudden, is the outlook on LA’s dream season begun to turn cloudy? And can the Dodgers turn it around this season, or are they destined to drop behind San Francisco or maybe even Arizona, who’s only 4.5 games back of 1st?
Now that we’ve taken a look at the American League’s best, let’s take a look at the best the Senior Circuit has to offer.
Catcher- Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Molina gets a slight edge over Buster Posey because he plays the position everyday, rather than playing half his games at 1st base. Molina has been excellent with the bat so far, hitting .316 with 4 homers and 15 RBI. He even has 2 stolen bases so far, half of his entire total from 2011. He has always been the finest of the catching Molina’s with his glove work, and now, in his age-29 season, the bat is starting to catch up.
1st base- Bryan LaHair, Chicago Cubs
LaHair has been given his 1st real shot in the big leagues at 29 and has not disappointed so far. In 20 games he has hit .390/.471/.780 with 5 homers and 14 RBI. Very few players are ever given their first crack at the Major Leagues at 29 and his early success has been one of baseball’s best stories so far. If LaHair could finish around .280 with 20+ homers, numbers that are very realistic, the Cubs will have gotten an absolute steal at 1st base.
Another surprise out of the NL Central has been the play of the Astros’ 2nd baseman. Altuve is very green at only 21 years of age, but has been smacking extra-base hits all over the field batting .360/.404/.547 with 11 XBH. The Astros have been surprisingly feisty so far, and Altuve is one of the major reasons why. His speed game is also excellent, having stolen 4 bases without being caught.
Shortstop- Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs
The 2nd Cub to grace the list, Castro is a singles hitting machine. He led the National League in hits a year ago, and is already back to his old tricks, piling up 30 hits already. He’s added some new moves as well, and has already stolen 10 bases, which puts him on pace to smash his previous career high of 22. Troy Tulowitzki is also playing well, but I’m giving the nod to Castro.
3rd base- David Wright, New York Mets
Wright gets the nod over Pablo Sandoval and David Freese at the National League’s deepest position. Wright leads all of baseball in on-base percentage, at a stellar .494, and is hitting a robust .389. He has been enjoying the moved in fences at Citi Field, bombing 3 homers already, putting him on pace to beat last season’s measly 14. He is also walking more than he is striking out, which is always an excellent sign that a hitter is really locked in at the plate.
Outfield- Matt Kemp, Los Angeles Dodgers
Well, this one’s obvious. Kemp is leading everyone in everything, topping the National League in batting average, OPS, slugging, total bases, runs, hits, homeruns, and RBI. His defense in center has also been excellent, and his batting eye at the plate looks to be improved. He’s got an outside shot at hitting 60 homers, and a really long shot at hitting .400 for the season. This kind of production wins no-doubt-about-it MVPs.
Outside of Matt Kemp, there are plenty of deserving candidates, and Ryan Braun is my first. Braun had been having a somewhat slow start to his MVP defense until last nights 3 homer, 1 triple, 6 RBI outburst. He’s now all the way up to 3rd in OPS for National League outfielders, and also has 7 homers total. He’s also showing last seasons 33 steals weren’t a fluke, as Braun has swiped 3 bases in 4 attempts.
Outfield- Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies
Gonzalez snaps up the last of the available outfield spots, because of his all-around play. He’s 6th out of NL outfielders in OPS, 13th in steals, 8th in homers, and 4th in RBI. His batting line: .303/.376/.539 with 4 homers, 4 steals, and 18 RBI. Other deserving candidates include: Andrew McCutchen, Michael Bourne, Carlos Beltran, Jay Bruce, and Chris Young, who was having a monster season before hitting the DL. If Young comes back and plays as well as he had been, the All-Star spot is his.
Right-handed Pitcher- Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
The ace of the best pitching staff in baseball so far has lived up to all the hype. Strasburg has pitched 5 games, compiling 32 innings and has struck out 34 while allowing 6 walks, 22 hits, and only 4 runs, giving him an ERA of 1.13. Hitters have looked overmatched against his powerful fastball and wipeout curveball. Strasburg is a legitimate Cy Young candidate if his team doesn’t shut him down first.
For as dominant as Strasburg has been from the right side, Kershaw has been nearly as dominant from the left. He has a 1.78 ERA in 30.1 innings and has already struck out 28 batters to begin his Cy Young defense. His WHIP sits under 1.00 once again and he has only allowed 1 homer so far, which was his biggest weakness a season ago. If Strasburg is shut down, look for Kershaw to reap the rewards.
Relief Pitcher- Jonathan Paplebon, Philadelphia Phillies
Without the excellent rotation put together in Philly, the team would already be sunk. They spend a fortune for Paplebon to close the door on teams, and he has gotten the job done so far this year. Paplebon is striking out 1 batter per innings, has a tidy .90 WHIP, and a miniscule .90 ERA as well.
With the 1st 10% of the Major League regular season in the books, let’s take a look at some of the burning questions from around the league.
Can Matt Kemp hit .400? Or how about 60 homers?
Matt Kemp launched another homerun last night, his 10th of the year, and he is currently hitting a robust .449 at the plate. Kemp is on pace to smash over 85 homeruns and post a batting average that would stand as an all-time record. Regression will inevitably set in at some point however, so his performance will inevitably decline, but does he have a shot at history. Kemp had a sizzling start a year ago, hitting .368 the 1stmonth of the season, with 6 homers before average declined, but he continued hitting homers at the same rate. While I don’t think Kemp can legitimately hit .400, I do believe that this start will enable him to bat above the .375 mark, a very difficult feat. I think Kemp has a better chance at hitting 60 dingers, because he would only need to hit a homer about 1 in every 11 at-bats the rest of the year, which would be a decline in his current 1 per 7 rate. Last year he hit 1 homer per every 15 at-bats, so he would have to continue to slug better than he did a year ago, but it is possible and I think Kemp will do it.
Do the Yankees have a pitching problem?
What was once thought to be the deepest rotation in baseball, with 7 major league caliber starters, is now treading on thin ice due to poor performance and injury. The Rangers bombed Phil Hughes yesterday, being chased after allowing 4 runs on 5 hits in 2.2 innings. His season ERA now stands at an ugly 7.88 and his biggest problem is the home run ball. Hughes has given up an unsightly 5 homers in the 16 innings he’s pitched, while allowing 13.5 hits per 9 innings. Batters are just teeing off on Phil right now. The news got worse yesterday for the Yankees and Michael Pineda, as they learned the young righty has a partially torn labrum, which requires surgery and will end his season before it began. Freddy Garcia has also been unsightly in the rotation, and now the Yankees are viewing the return of Andy Pettitte as a need, rather than a luxury. Pettitte is 40-years-old and didn’t pitch a season ago, so he should be counted on for nothing more than back of the rotation help. If Garcia can put together one good start his next time out, Hughes will probably be sent to the bullpen. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova make up a solid top of the rotation, but the Yankees will need someone else to step up in the 3rd spot if they want to improve what has been their biggest problem so far in 2012. That pitcher will probably have to be Hiroki Kuroda, who has been mediocre for the Bronx Bombers so far. If he steps up the Yankees pitching woes will be a thing of the past. But if he continues to struggle and posts a mid-4.00 ERA or worse, New York could be watching baseball in October, because the AL East is a meat grinder this year.
Are the Nationals for real?
Most definitely yes, the Nats are for real. Washington has the best pitching staff in baseball so far. They rank 1st in runs allowed, hits allowed, homeruns allowed (only 4!!!), average fastball velocity and they rank 2nd in baseball in strikeouts. Before the season manager Davey Johnson said he would take his staff over any in baseball, including the vaunted Philadelphia rotation, and so far he’s been proven right. The top-3 of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez all possess ERAs under 2.00. Strasburg, in particular, has been untouchable, posting an absurd 336 ERA+ while striking out 10.3 batters per 9. The offense could use a little boost, ranking 22nd in baseball so far, but many of their best hitters are struggling or on the DL. Michael Morse has yet to play, and he was the team’s best hitter a year ago. Morse will probably return to action around the end of May. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington’s star 3rd baseman, has also struggled hitting only .224/.324/.345. Expect the offense to improve when the weather really heats up and expect the Nationals to keep on winning.
Should Yoenis Cespedes be your new favorite player?
Yes. The guy is a treat to watch. Cespedes swings with all his might, hits with massive power, steals bases, has a rocket launcher for an arm, and plays the game with passion. And if that isn’t enough for you how about this?
Oh, and he will probably be a 30-30 player for years to come. He already has 5 homers and 4 steals on the young season and his plate discipline is improving. And the scary part is how good Cespedes will be in a year or two, once he adjusts to living in America and gets a better grasp of the strike zone. He’s a fantastic player who is breathtaking to watch.
Where has Albert Pujols gone?
The Machine has not been the same since leaving St. Louis for the sunny shores of California. He’s having the worst April of his entire career and is also currently stuck in the worst slump of his career, a 0-19 bender that has many pundits baffled. He is now hitting .222/.282/.319 and still hasn’t hit his 1st homerun. Last night against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pujols looked downright uncomfortable at the plate, striking out twice, and pulling into the shift once. Two or three years ago, a manager wouldn’t have dared to use a shift on Pujols, because he would punish it by immediately taking the 1st good pitch to the opposite field for a base hit. The Rays shifted on Pujols for every at-bat, showing either a lot of conviction out of Joe Maddon or knowledge that Pujols is trying to pull everything. If Albert relaxes a little more at the plate and starts to use the whole field again, he will once again take his place as one of the 3-5 most feared hitters alive. Pujols should recover in time to hit around .280-.300 with 25 homers, a far cry from the production expected out of him when he signed in LA for $240 million. The bigger concern should be going forward, because if Pujols’ production is already declining, the Angels are in big trouble.