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Hey, Red Sox, Play to Win the Game!

With two on and and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of an eight run ball game against the Toronto Blue Jays this afternoon, a Red Sox legend strode to the plate, the powerful…Sandy Leon.

OK, maybe not a Red Sox legend. But a Red Sox legend was supposed to. David Ortiz was set to come to the plate before Red Sox manager John Farrell decided to pinch hit Leon, a backup catcher for the Sox. Big Papi has been swinging a hot bat of late and had smashed a ball into the bullpen in right in the fifth inning, but Farrell decided to take out the dude people come to the ballpark to see and sub in the guy nobody’s heard of.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

My brother Dan turned to me and said, “that makes me want to leave.” And I said, “me too,” and we stood up and headed for the exits on Yawkey Way.

From a purely baseball perspective, it was a pretty brutal day at Fenway–starting pitcher Eddy Rodriguez’s stuff was pretty on point for a while, but E-Rod (idk if people call him that) fell victim to a brutally suck out-y fourth inning in which a series of bloop singles and misplays in the field led to a six run frame, and Rodriguez left after struggling again in the fifth; Pedroia kept losing balls in the sun; the bullpen sucked (per usual); and the Red Sox never led.

But the one thing that really stuck in my craw was the decision to pull Ortiz in the ninth.

Sure, the Red Sox weren’t going to win. Only a miracle would have erased the eight run deficit the Red Sox were facing. But sports fans’ fandom, particularly good fans–the masochistic ones who root on their teams through thick and thin–hinges on the idea that sports games (and seasons) are not over ’til they’re over. That old Yogi Berra quote cuts straight to the core of sports fan (or player, for that matter) psychology. It’s why we wear rally caps. It’s why we love a fantastic comeback. Or a huge underdog. Games must be played to the end. It’s not over until the clock strikes zero. Or until the fat lady sings. Or whatever cliche floats your boat.

When a team says, “eh, we’re done with this game,” it’s a big F you to its fans. Sure, exceptions can be made. When you’re down 25 late in the fourth quarter of a basketball game, or 35 in a football game, sure, throw in the scrubs and run down the clock. But, as a general principle, the white flagged is best waved as late as possible in sports.

Of all teams, the Red Sox should know that. After all, it was the BoSox that came back from down 3-0 to the Yankees in ’04. In fact, the Red Sox have had enough late-game comebacks in the past decade to devote an entire blog post to them. And Ortiz is Mr. Clutch. There is nothing better than Ortiz in the box with runners on in the ninth. (Actually, that’s a lie: Ortiz in the box with runners on in extras might top it.) And what possible benefit could come from bringing in Sandy Leon? Did Ortiz need the rest? Had sitting on the bench all afternoon exhausted him? Was Ferrell worried about Ortiz pulling a hamstring on the walk to the plate? Had Ortiz already retired to the clubhouse for some fried chicken and beer, John Lackey style?

The Red Sox are not a very fun team right now. They’re a fielding disaster, their pitching is horrendous, and half their lineup is underperforming. But they’re still a pro baseball team. It’s one thing for Sox fans to be treated to bad baseball. It’s something else entirely to be treated to a team that quits on games.

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2015 MLB Preview: AL West

(Author’s Note: Sorry about the delay in posts, I’m going to try to complete this preview within the next week or so). The AL West was one of the best divisions in baseball in 2014, despite the dreadful duo of the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros at its tail end. The Los Angeles Angels, the Oakland Athletics, and the Seattle Mariners were either in the playoffs or in the hunt until the very last day. The AL West should remain fairly vicious this year, with those same three teams winning plenty of games. I do think two playoff teams will again emerge from the division this season, but the A’s will not be one of them.

Divisional Breakdown

  1. Los Angeles Angels
  2. Seattle Mariners
  3. Oakland Athletics
  4. Houston Astros
  5. Texas Rangers

Team Breakdown

  1. Los Angeles Angels

On the strength of unexpectedly solid starting pitching and Mike Trout’s first MVP season, the Angels won the most games in the league and took home the AL West title before falling to the spunky Kansas City Royals in the ALDS. The Angels’ roster didn’t change much over the offseason, which is a good thing when talking about a 98 win team. The Angels had the top-run producing offense last year, and the lineup should remain potent. Mike Trout is an outstanding talent and a perennial MVP candidate, Kole Calhoun is very good in right field, and Albert Pujols’ remaining efficacy has often been underrated in recent years. While the loss of Howie Kendrick to the crosstown Dodgers hurts, the upgrade from C.J. Cron to Matt Joyce at DH should make up for lost production. The rotation has the potential to be very good. I’m not the biggest fan of Jered Weaver or C.J Wilson, but each had a decent 2014 and can contribute in a solid rotation. The key factors in this staff are Garrett Richards and 2014 Rookie of the Year runner up Matt Shoemaker. If Richards can return (in mid-April) pitching like he did last year, and if Shoemaker can replicate his rookie year performance, the Angels’ rotation will be in good shape. If new addition Andrew Heaney can come up and contribute to the staff at some point, even better. The bullpen is in better shape than it was at the beginning of last year, with Huston Street installed as closer. Street and setup man Joe Smith form one of the better one-two bullpen combinations in the big leagues.

Verdict

Best Case- Trout wins his second straight MVP, Richards and Shoemaker are dominant once again, and the Angels take the AL West on the way to the AL pennant.

Worst Case- Age takes its toll on Pujols, Wilson, and Weaver, Richards doesn’t look the same after the injury, and the Angels fall behind the Mariners in the division.

Trout and the Angels willl be fishing for a championship in 2015.

  1. Seattle Mariners

The Mariners had a pretty good 2014, winning their most games since 2007. Robinson Cano was a welcome addition into Seattle’s lineup, Kyle Seager showed himself to be one of the better third basemen in the leagues, and Felix Hernandez added yet another fantastic season onto his resumé. The Mariners enter the season poised to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, thanks to several key offseason acquisitions who should complement the incumbent stars well. Nelson Cruz should provide much-needed power in the heart of the lineup, and Seth Smith and Austin Jackson will make the Mariners’ once-weak outfield respectable. Meanwhile, the Mariners have one of the most fearsome rotations in baseball. King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma are a dominant one-two punch, and hopefully 2015 will be the year that Taijuan Walker shows the hype surrounding him to be true. The bullpen arms will aim to repeat the standard they set in 2014, when Seattle had the lowest bullpen ERA of any major league team. Closer Fernando Rodney is among the best in baseball, and Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar both had sub-3 ERAs last season. The Mariners should hold on to the lead in a lot of close games this year.

Verdict

Best Case- Hernandez is a Cy Young candidate, Cano and Seager are tops at their positions, and the Mariners win the AL West for the first time since 2001.

Worst Case- Walker cannot produce at the major league level, Cruz cannot replicate his powerful production of last year, and the Mariners just miss out on a wild card spot.

Hernandez and Cano must be on the top of their games for the Mariners to reach the postseason.

  1. Oakland Athletics

The A’s looked like the best team in baseball last season, until several ill-fated trades aimed to make Oakland even more formidable ended up backfiring. The midseason acquisitions of Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija served only to rid the team of Yoenis Cespedes and prospect Addison Russell. Somewhat poetically, Lester was on the mound for the epic Wild Card Game loss to the Kansas City Royals. Perhaps in response, the 2015 offseason has been one of massive turnover for the A’s roster. Gone are Lester, Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, John Jaso, and Jed Lowrie, key components of the successful A’s squads of the past few years. In their place are several promising pieces which, if everything pans out, could turn out to be extremely valuable. The lineup is interesting blend of speed and power, with Coco Crisp and Billy Butler serving as examples of each attribute. Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, and Josh Reddick form a solid heart of the batting order, but it remains to be seen if Ike Davis can be a starting first-bagger at the big league level. Similarly, the rotation could be very good, but there are nagging question marks. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir are a solid top two in the staff, but after that, things look a bit rough. Jesse Chavez appeared to revive his career, and the A’s will count on him to continue his success in 2015. The bullpen, 3rd in the league in reliever ERA last year, should be good, with former Nat Tyler Clippard assuming the closing role in place of the injured Sean Doolittle. Once the latter returns, the two should form an imposing end-of-game pair.

Verdict

Best Case- The rotation holds together, Billy Beane’s roster gambles pay off, and the new-look A’s take back the AL West title.

Worst Case- The new lineup doesn’t mesh, the rotation is a tire fire beyond Gray and Kazmir, and the Athletics fall behind– gulp– the Astros in the AL West.

Jesus- sorry, Josh Reddick and the new-look A’s hope to maintain the team’s recent success.

  1. Houston Astros

It’s difficult to imagine that a team that went 70-92 could be considered improved, but the 2014 Astros were Houston’s most successful squad since 2010. There were several brights spots for Houston– George Springer’s powerful debut, the breakout seasons of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh — but the brightest of all was diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve, who took home the AL batting title. Although the Astros won’t quite be in playoff contention in 2015, there should be plenty of hope for the future in Houston. The lineup is improved, even with the departure of Dexter Fowler. New additions Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus should be solid replacements at short and in center, and Evan Gattis, Chris Carter, and Springer form a powerful middle of the lineup. The lineup will look even better if Jon Singleton can realize his potential at first, and if Carlos Correa and his impressive bat can reach the majors by September. The rotation is less impressive at the moment, but it has the potential to be fairly good. If Keuchel and McHugh continue their 2014 success, new acquisition Dan Straily produces at the level he did in his rookie season, and top prospect Mark Appel impresses enough to reach the Show this season, the Astros might begin to scare some teams around the league. The bullpen, statistically the worst in the league last year, should be much improved. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek are two of the better righty relievers in the league, so things should be a little less hopeless in the Houston ‘pen this year.

Verdict

Best Case- Houston’s pitchers realize their potential, the position player prospects impress, and the Astros are in the wild card race until late in the year.

Worst Case-  Correa and Appel suffer more setbacks, McHugh and Keuchel struggle, and the Astros finish in the AL West cellar.

Jose Altuve waves goodbye to the 60-win seasons of the past few years.

  1. Texas Rangers

The American League’s worst team in 2014, the injury-plagued Rangers looked nothing like their competitive teams of the last several years. Even though many of the Rangers’ struggles could be linked back to injuries to star players like Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish, I don’t believe that Texas will be much better this year. Darvish is hurt again, and Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo have yet to display why Texas invested $300 million in them as free agents last offseason. The lineup is ok, with perennial All-Star Adrian Beltre at third and Elvis Andrus at short, and should become better midway through the season, when minor league phenom Joey Gallo is projected to reach the majors. Still, Jurickson Profar has been set back yet again with injury issues, and the rest of the lineup just isn’t that eye-popping. Unless Fielder and Choo can return to their past levels of performance, Texas might have a difficult time scoring runs. The rotation is pretty unintimidating, especially without Darvish. Yovani Gallardo and Derek Holland are good starting pitchers, but not good enough to carry a rotation of Ross Detweiller, Colby Lewis, and Nick Martinez to the postseason. The bullpen was already going to be a weak spot on the team after the departures of Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor over the past year, but an injury-plagued spring has made the situation even worse. Closer Neftali Feliz will have to carry the load for Texas in the ‘pen.

Verdict

Best Case- Gallardo and Holland impress, Fielder, Choo, and Beltre form a solid core of the lineup, and the Rangers reinsert themselves into the wild card conversation.

Worst Case- The rotation and bullpen are disasters, Fielder and Choo look like shells of their former selves, and the Rangers are once again one of the worst teams in the league.

For the Rangers to have a shot at the postseason, Prince Fielder will have to stay on the field.

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2015 MLB Preview: AL Central

Even though the Detroit Tigers won the AL Central for the fourth straight year in 2014, the Kansas City Royals had the more memorable season, reaching the postseason and the World Series for the first time since 1985 before losing to the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Despite the relative success of these two squads last year, however, I don’t think either one will be returning to the postseason in 2015. The Minnesota Twins will be better as their highly-touted prospects begin to arrive in the Show, and the Cleveland Indians have a formidable lineup to send out alongside AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. But I think the Chicago White Sox will be the team to end Detroit’s domination of the Central and to take the divisional crown for the first time since 2008.

Divisional Breakdown

  1. Chicago White Sox
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Minnesota Twins

Team Breakdown

  1. Chicago White Sox

The White Sox had a fairly discouraging 2014, with the team falling out of the AL Wild Card race after a terrible August. However, there were several bright spots, the most exciting of which being AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. This year, the White Sox will depend on the 28 year old Cuban to be the key cog in a revamped lineup. The White Sox had one of the splashiest offseasons of any team in the league, adding OBP master Melky Cabrera and the powerful Adam Laroche into the fold. These two will be welcome additions into a lineup that doesn’t boast many household names. In addition to the improved lineup, the White Sox boast an imposing trio of starting pitchers: Chris Sale (my Cy Young pick), new acquisition Jeff Samardzija, and the underrated Jose Quintana. Although Sale is currently injured, and although the rest of the rotation is somewhat underwhelming, these three should serve Chicago well come October. Strides were also made to improve a bullpen that was among the worst in the league last season. New closer David Robertson and lefty Zach Duke should help the White Sox lock down a few more games over the course of 2015.

Verdict

Best Case- Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana are dominant, Abreu is an MVP candidate, and the White Sox win the AL Central.

Worst Case- Sale’s foot doesn’t heal properly, Robertson and Duke cannot fix Chicago’s bullpen troubles, and the White Sox are stuck at home in October.

I feel obligated to use this image whenever Chris Sale comes up in a post.

  1. Cleveland Indians

The Indians had a fairly good 2014 season, finishing 3 games back in the AL Wild Card race. Breakout seasons from Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley, who finished third in the AL MVP race, should have Indians fans very excited for 2015. Overall, this is a pretty solid baseball team. In addition to Brantley, the lineup boasts the underrated catcher Yan Gomes, the powerful Carlos Santana, and the newly acquired Brandon Moss, who should improve production out of right field. And if Jason Kipnis can return to his 2013 All-Star form, the Indians’ lineup might be among the best in baseball. The rotation is also promising, headlined by Kluber and filled with young fireballers. Getting production out of Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer will be particularly important if the Indians hope to compete this year. The bullpen is fairly solid, with no key departures from a squad that finished 7th in the league in reliever ERA. While I don’t know if I agree with Sports Illustrated’s prediction that the Indians will win the World Series, Cleveland will certainly be a formidable opponent in 2015.

Verdict

Best Case- The rotation is overwhelming, Brantley, Gomes, and Kipnis produce at a high level, and the Indians take home the AL Central title.

Worst Case- The young guns in the rotation show little development, the breakout seasons of last year appear to be a fluke, and Cleveland misses the playoffs for the second straight year.

Tests have confirmed that Kluber is not a robot, but he does exude a machine-like efficiency from the mound.

  1. Detroit Tigers

The Tigers missed yet another opportunity to bring home their first World Series title since 1984 when they lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. Now, they try to do so in an AL Central that has improved, and with a team that is quite different than last year’s. Any lineup with Miguel Cabrera will produce a fair amount of runs. Adding Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez, and J.D Martinez into the equation in 2014 resulted in the Tigers scoring the second-most of any team last season. Jose Iglesias will return, intent on matching the offensive production and defensive wizardry of his rookie season, newcomer Anthony Gose will try to be a serviceable replacement to Austin Jackson in center, and Yoenis Cespedes will attempt to inflate the value of his next contract with a big season. While the lineup appears to be as strong as ever, Detroit’s rotation and bullpen are filled with question marks. Gone are Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly. In their place stand David Price, Alfredo Simon, and Shane Greene. I don’t know that the replacements will be able to match the production of their predecessors, a statement made even more concerning by the fact that no one knows if Justin Verlander will ever be the same pitcher that he was in 2011 again. I believe the Tigers’ rotation will be solid, but I’m not sure that they’ll match the dominance of the 2013 squad. Meanwhile, the team did little to improve what was an absolute mess of a bullpen in 2014. Joe Nathan is back, coming off one of the worst years of his career, and disappointing midseason acquisition Joakim Soria returns as well. It is up to those two, as well as the resigned Joba Chamberlain, to provide some stability to what has been consistently the worst aspect of Detroit’s team.

Verdict

Best Case- Miggy and Victor Martinez are MVP candidates, Verlander and Price look like their old selves, and the Tigers win their fifth consecutive AL Central crown.

Worst Case- The aging lineup is injury-riddled, the new pitching acquisitions can’t match the production of last year’s squad, and the Tigers miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Verlander and Price need to pitch like their old selves if the Tigers are to win this division.

  1. Kansas City Royals

The Royals shocked the world in 2014, sweeping their way to the World Series from the wild card game before finally falling to the San Francisco Bumgarners– sorry, the San Francisco Giants in seven games. Unfortunately, after losing three key members of that magical run- James Shields, Nori Aoki, and Billy Butler- and not matching some of the louder moves of their divisional rivals, I don’t think they’ll be returning to the postseason. The lineup is still quite solid and defensively elite, with Gold Glovers Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon all back at their respective posts. Newcomers Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales will attempt to produce at DH and RF, but both had fairly mediocre 2014s, which can be tough to come back from on the wrong side of 30. The rotation is solid, but will certainly miss its former ace Shields. Flamethrower Yordano Ventura and his fellow young gun Danny Duffy headline a staff that could be one of the better rotations in baseball, provided that Edinson Volquez can replicate his success of 2014. Chris Young is a nice end-of-the-rotation addition as well, and the signing of Kris Medlen (who will return later in the season from Tommy John surgery) could play a key role down the stretch. The core of the much-discussed Kansas City bullpen stayed relatively unchanged, with closer Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera all returning. If they can perform as they did last year, the Royals will win a lot of close games.

Verdict

Best Case- Perez, Hosmer, and Gordon show they’re among the best at their positions, the rotation holds together despite the loss of Shields, and the Royals snag another wild card spot.

Worst Case- Morales and Rios aren’t suitable replacements, the rotation looks weak without Shields, and the Royals drop out of the wild card race by mid-September.

Ventura, seen here at his Rockettes audition, will bring 100+ MPH heat at the top of KC’s rotation.

  1. Minnesota Twins

The 2014 Twins were pretty bad, finishing in last place in the Central and not even getting a glimpse of the future after disappointing injuries to their two top prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. While I don’t expect the Twins to be in contention this year, Minnesota could be a dangerous team come 2016. The lineup is filled with potential. Buxton and Sano are still stuck in the minors for the time being, but Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia have shown promise in the outfield, and Brian Dozier is one of the better second basemen in the league. Torii Hunter is back in Minnesota, returning to the team with which he spent the first nine full years of his career. While Buxton may very well steal his job when he finally arrives in the Bigs, Hunter will provide valuable veteran leadership (and may serve to put more Minnesotan butts in the seats). The rotation had the highest ERA of any AL team last year, but the addition of Ervin Santana should make things a little better. Phil Hughes had a terrific 2014 season and was rewarded with a 3-year, $42 million extension. Hughes and Santana alone aren’t enough to fix Minnesota’s pitching problems, though, and the back end of the Twins’ rotation will probably struggle. The bullpen is decent, with All-Star Glen Perkins closing games, but it is not very deep. The Twins may yet decide to pursue free agent closer Rafael Soriano to shore up their staff.

Verdict

Best Case- Buxton and Sano come up and impress, Arcia and Hicks emerge as key long-term pieces, and the Twins enter 2016 as a playoff favorite.

Worst Case- Buxton and Sano are again bitten by the injury bug, the rotation is a mess, and the window for contention moves even farther away than it already is.

On the bright side for 2015, Joe Mauer’s hair is still presumably dandruff-free.

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2015 MLB Preview: Playoff Picture and World Series

It’s time once again for my predictions for which teams will make the playoffs, and which team will come away from 2015 immortalized with a World Series trophy. As always, I expect to look back at some of these picks in October and wonder what I was thinking, but here are my best guesses as to which teams we will see playing this fall.

Divisional and Wild Card Winners

AL East– Baltimore Orioles

AL Central– Chicago White Sox

AL West– Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

AL Wild Card #1– Boston Red Sox

AL Wild Card #2– Seattle Mariners

NL East- Washington Nationals

NL Central– St. Louis Cardinals

NL West– Los Angeles Dodgers

NL Wild Card #1– New York Mets

NL Wild Card #2– Chicago Cubs

Wild Card Matches

AL- Seattle Mariners defeat Boston Red Sox

NL- New York Mets defeat Chicago Cubs

Divisional Round

AL- Los Angeles Angels defeat Seattle Mariners in 5 games, Chicago White Sox defeat Baltimore Orioles in 4 games

NL- Washington Nationals defeat New York Mets in 4 games, Los Angeles Dodgers defeat St. Louis Cardinals in 5 games

Championship Round

AL- Los Angeles Angels defeat Chicago White Sox in 6 games

NL- Washington Nationals defeat Los Angeles Dodgers in 7 games

World Series

Washington Nationals defeat Los Angeles Angels in 5 games

Harper and the Nationals will finally taste postseason success in 2015.

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2015 MLB Preview: NL Awards

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome back to College Sports Town’s 2015 MLB Preview. I apologize for not posting since my AL Awards preview as I have been separated from my laptop, but, now that I’m back, let’s get right to it. Here are my picks for NL MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in 2015.

NL MVP- Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

McCutchen’s sweet stroke should keep him at the top of the MVP race.

Two years ago, I predicted Cutch would win his first MVP award, and he validated my prognosis. This year, I expect more of the same excellence from McCutchen, who led the NL in OBP and OPS last season. His candidacy will be aided by an improved Pirates lineup. Though catcher Russell Martin will be missed, new additions Corey Hart and Korean import Jung-ho Kang, not to mention an entire year from young outfielder Gregory Polanco, will solidify an already potent offense and make McCutchen’s life easier. McCutchen’s MVP odds will be further helped by the difficulties several other top candidates will have to deal with this season. Clayton Kershaw is unlikely to win another MVP even if he were somehow able to duplicate last year’s numbers, Troy Tulowitzki can’t seem to play enough games to be considered, and I still don’t know how long it will take Giancarlo Stanton to readjust after that terrible beaning last September. Thanks to these roadblocks, Cutch’s path to the 2015 NL MVP might just be as simple as producing numbers consistent with those of the past few years, which I believe he is more than capable of.

NL Cy Young- Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Last year, I tried to not select him. I predicted Jose Fernandez would win the Cy Young, not a ridiculous selection but one that proved to be inaccurate when Fernandez became yet another victim of the Tommy John epidemic. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t reasonably predict anyone else but Kershaw to win this award. Kershaw, who came into 2014 already having won two Cy Youngs and arguably deserving a third, delivered a season for the ages, leading the league in wins, ERA, WHIP and several other categories. He tossed his first no-hitter, won his third Cy Young, and became the first pitcher since Justin Verlander in 2011 to win an MVP award. Oh, and he’s still only 27 years old. There are other outstanding pitchers in the National League, of course. Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, and postseason hero Madison Bumgarner all deserve tremendous respect. However, when someone comes along and not only inspires comparisons to Sandy Koufax but validates them, it is difficult to expect anything less than greatness from him.

Kershaw should be dealing as always in 2015.

Kershaw should be dealing as always in 2015.

NL Rookie of the Year- Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

One of the prized cornerstones of the future for the Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant has displayed in Spring Training the prestigious power that produced 43 home runs at the minor league level in 2014 and earned him the status of Baseball America’s #1 prospect. His six  home runs would normally be enough to earn him a spot on the opening day roster, but issues over long-term contract control will likely leave him in the minors for the few first weeks of the season. Still, Bryant has shown that the hype surrounding him is well-deserved. I expect him to rake from the moment he gets called up, and to become yet another reason for folks around the league to be afraid of the quickly improving Chicago Cubs.

Bryant thanking his bat for all it’s done for him.

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Ruminations on the Retirement of Alfonso Soriano

Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement this week.

Alfonso Soriano's career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Alfonso Soriano’s career was all about bat flips, bombs, and big smiles.

Looking back at Soriano’s career, it certainly had its contradictions. Soriano was famously overpaid and overrated, and yet somehow also underrated for much of his career. His longevity and (relative) consistency is striking–from 2002 to 2013 he hit at least 20 home runs every year. Sure, there were major ups and (often injury-induced) downs. During his time with the Cubs from 2007 to 2013, Soriano was often a lightening rod due to his huge contract and struggles to get on base. Yet, he still had plenty of good times in Chicago: enough to produce 181 home runs and a cumulative .812 OPS in 889 games.

Soriano will go down as a Yankee first, though, not a Cub. Sori broke onto the scene as one of the league’s best young players in the early 2000s, thrilling Bronx crowds with his combination of blazing speed and prodigious power. He nearly hit the 40 home run-40 stolen base mark in those early New York years…twice (’02 &’03)! He eventually joined the 40-40 club during his one year with the Washington Nationals in ’06, blasting 46 homers and pilfering 41 bases.

Soriano made it back to New York in 2013, and finished off his best late-career season by knocking out 17 home runs in 58 games after a mid-season trade from the Cubs.

In some strange way, Sori still feels like a product of the steroid era, even though he was always built like a stick and never tested positive for any PEDs. Yet, Soriano’s ‘cleanness’ is essential to his legacy. He’s the only 40-40 member who’s not linked to roids. His 412 home runs are not impugned by the shadow of roids. In the era of PEDs, Soriano was a pro’s pro. A star with a tree trunk for a bat and legendary swagger who (as far as we know) wasn’t sticking needles in his body.

And, even as Soriano became one of those guys who you felt like you’d been watching forever, watching the fleet-footed infielder-turned-outfielder always felt like rediscovering one of the game’s gems–his retirement feels both overdue and, simultaneously, abrupt and unexpected.

Alfonso Soriano now exits quietly, the polar opposite of the way his venerable Yankee teammate–Derek Jeter–went out. Much like Jeter, though, Soriano was a unique, often times polarizing player. And, like Jeter, Sori represented the type of eye-catching talent that seems to become rarer and rarer in today’s MLB.

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A Farewell to Jeets

Derek Jeter played his antepenultimate home game as a Yankee last night. Today he took the Yankee Stadium diamond for the second to last time ever. Between the two games, he went one for nine at the plate, striking out thrice. The Yankees, meanwhile, lost both contests.

Even as his career ends with a whimper, Derek Jeter continues to incite fierce debate in sports fans everywhere.

Even as his career ends with a whimper, Derek Jeter continues to incite fierce debate in sports fans everywhere.

The two games are fairly emblematic of the season as a whole for the 40 year old Captain and his Bronx Bombers. Jeter’s farewell tour has been, for the most part, a resounding disappointment on the field; Jeter has had a hellish season from a statistical perspective, far and away the worst full season of his career. He is the owner of just 23 extra base hits in 625 plate appearances and an embarrassing OPS of .611. His team has managed, to date, just 81 wins and will fall short of the playoffs. They have failed to take advantage of an unusually weak AL East or to send Jeter off with one last trip to October.

Jeter’s final season has, however, been a beautiful thing in other ways. While his numbers have faltered in his closing campaign, Jeter has still engendered the same love and worship, and loathing and criticism, that have characterized his fabulous career. Jeter does represent everything we love about sports. And I don’t mean that in the way so many do–in the tacky, cliched sense that he’s an unassailable teammate, leader, and person.  Those characteristics are subjective and hard to prove anyway, although I have little reason to think that the quiet Jeter lacks them.

Rather, Jeter represents the very things that create sports fans. He is an idol who has spurred endless debate. Was Derek Jeter a good defensive shortstop? I rest my case. So many fundamental baseball disputes are relevant to Jeter. It’s hard to have a conversation about the utility of defensive stats like dWAR or UZR without bringing up Jeter. Or the worth of Gold Gloves. Or even the importance of championships in ranking players.

Meanwhile, Jeter finds himself at the center of the debate between old school and new school. Everybody concedes that he’s been a great player over his two decades in pinstripes. But the new school guys will never agree with the old school folks about how great he was. After all, the dude’s individual accolades don’t look quite as good when they’re not paired with his team accomplishments. And those defensive stats are far from pretty.

The Jeter debates never seem to end. Now they surround whether he’s batting too high in the order (he is) and whether too much attention is being paid to his farewell tour. Just the other night, Keith Olbermann ripped through Jeter. At this point, Jeter almost personifies sports debate.

What I love most about Jeter, though, is that in the early 2000s he was the guy that every kid in America wanted to play like. We modeled our batting stances after him, practiced that jump throw he made so famous, and played video games that invariably had his face on the cover.

In so many respects, Jeter is post-2000 baseball.

Jeter has long been the face of America's past time. Who's next in line?

Jeter has long been the face of America’s past time. Who’s next in line?

Much of this comes down to visibility. But even more than that, it comes down to the fact that he’s Derek Jeter. He’s baseball’s Michael Jordan. He’s the face of an era of baseball. And yes, that era arguably ended more than half a decade ago. The MLB’s recent golden age with Jeter as front man evaporated long before Jeter’s proverbial baseball candle burned out. But Jeter’s coming retirement still feels too early. As I observed when Jeter first announced he’d be retiring, #2 has been manning that spat of dirt to the left of second at Yankee Stadium since before I was born.

Jeter will now move on. The MLB will be forced to find a new face. Kids playing in fields and sandlots will need to find a new player to emulate. And baseball fans everywhere will search for a new perpetual debate-creation machine.

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