A flurry of moves over the past few days has the hot stove firing earlier than usual this offseason. With the Prince Fielder–Ian Kinsler blockbuster swap already thoroughly examined, let's explore what these other trades and signings mean for the teams, the players, and the rest of the winter.
New York Yankees
What they've done: The Yankees signed catcher Brian McCann to a five-year, $85 million contract with a vesting option that could take the deal to six years and $100 million.
What it means: McCann gives the Yankees' offense a big boost. A few years ago, the Bombers fielded a lineup stuffed with power hitters and big on-base threats, the kind of attack that would wear down opposing pitchers and bash teams into submission, making up for New York's sometimes shaky run prevention. That formula unraveled in 2013, with major injuries knocking multiple boppers out of the lineup, reducing the Yankees' offense to no. 28 in baseball on a park-adjusted basis. Chris Stewart, the team’s primary receiver, hit an abysmal .211/.293/.272. Since 2006, McCann’s first full season, only four catchers have delivered more offensive value. Strip out Victor Martinez and Mike Napoli, who no longer catch, and McCann trails only Joe Mauer and Buster Posey; and once the 2014 season starts, Mauer won't be catching, either.
Last night, I met a friend at Professor Thom’s in New York City to grab a beer. As you might imagine, it didn’t take long for a Professor Thom’s employee to bring up the Red Sox.
“We can put the Sox on whatever TV you want,” he said as I sat down at the bar, between two televisions. I ordered and explained that I was actually a Royals fan, but that he shouldn’t sweat it, because they were in Seattle and wouldn’t be on until 10.
Only two more weekends left in the regular season, and to use one of my favorite clichés, these guys have EVERYTHING to play for! Let's get to it.
10. How the Nationals Will Destroy the NL Central (MIA-WAS)
At exactly the moment in the season when it was pretty much too late, the Nationals started winning like fiends. Going back to September 3, they've put together a 13-3 streak and salvaged a very remote chance of snatching the final wild-card spot. It's still a huge long shot; with nine games remaining, they find themselves five back of the Reds. We're at the point where one Reds-win-Nats-lose night will basically sink them. On the other hand, the Reds have six games remaining against the Pirates, and as long as Pittsburgh has a shot at the NL Central title, thus avoiding the wild card, they won't be laying down for anyone. The Nationals don't have it much easier, finishing with the Pirates and Diamondbacks, but they do have three games against the Marlins this weekend. In theory, it's not insane to imagine that they could be two back with six to play on Monday. And that's a very different outlook.
So, this is how the Nationals could destroy the NL Central. First, they finish in a tie with the Reds for the final playoff spot. That would result in a one-game playoff. If the Nationals won that, they would then play the wild-card game against whoever loses the Pirates-Cardinals battle for the NL Central for argument's sake, let's say the Pirates. If they won that game, and St. Louis maintained a lead in the standings over the Dodgers, the Nats would then play the third NL Central team in the divisional round. It could be a clean sweep! Five games, and a whole division destroyed! If that happened, I would add the NL Central massacre to this Wikipedia page over and over until they let it stay.
For the first 10 years of his career, Bruce Chen was the quintessential baseball journeyman. He played for nine teams in those 10 seasons. He'd already played for four-fifths of the National League East by age 25, prompting a groundswell of support for a trade to the Marlins that would complete the set. He broke into the big leagues the year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the single-season home run record, then got shown the door by his ninth team the year the Mitchell Report came out.
That could have easily been the end. At that point in his career, Chen owned a 4.63 ERA. He'd rarely held down one role for long, much less excelled at one, his 32-start, 13-10, 3.83 ERA season with the Orioles in 2005 being the notable exception. On top of all that, he'd suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. You don't sweat a year-plus of rehab on a 25-year-old phenom. For a pitcher who'd be pushing 32 by the time he got back, with a résumé that spotty, there were no guarantees he'd ever get another shot.
What's happened since then has been a minor miracle. Chen is winding down his fifth season with the Royals, by far his longest stint with any team. He's finishing up a two-year, $9 million contract, the first multiyear deal of his 15-year career. And for the first time since his rookie season, he's a full-fledged member of a starting rotation on a team with legitimate, down-to-the-wire playoff aspirations. As much as the 2013 Royals must rely on James Shields, Ervin Santana, and their young lineup in this year's home stretch, they probably won't go anywhere unless Chen also comes through.
In case you were busy wishing you could just be a linebacker, and not the go-to name when someone gets tricked on the Internet, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Chris Davis's 12th-inning single gave the Orioles a 5-3 win over Boston, leaving the Red Sox's magic number for clinching the AL East at three. "Yeah it is. Oh, three, is a magic number," Red Sox manager John Farrell sang after the game before leading his team in a Schoolhouse Rock sing-along that both raised team morale and clarified for second baseman Dustin Pedroia exactly how a bill becomes a law.
Desmond Jennings's walk-off single was the final blow in the Tampa Bay Rays' back-and-forth extra-inning 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers. "Even if we have a lot of kids and other team's rejects, we have a great team spirit that I think is going to bring us into the postseason," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who was dressed as Oscar the Grouch in a strange bit of morale-draining one-upmanship. "Because we here in Tampa love trash. We love it because it's trash."
In case you were busy doubling down on a profanity-laced tirade against your own fans, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard had two touchdowns as the Cincinnati Bengals dropped the Pittsburgh Steelers to 0-2 for the first time in the Mike Tomlin era with a 20-10 win. "The guy from The Other Sister! You gotta be kidding me," Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said to Tomlin over his headset after Bernard's first touchdown. A confused Tomlin asked LeBeau what he was talking about, to which the renowned defensive coordinator responded, "I thought it was crazy too! Why would Marvin Lewis bring him in? He was wooden in Avatar, and I hear his new show, Dads, is terrible. I mean he wasn't bad in Saving Private Ryan, but he hardly struck me as an athlete, and that was long enough ago the Bengals still had Ickey Woods at the position. Guy's gotta be pushing 40." When Tomlin then asked LeBeau if he had confused rookie speedster Giovani Bernard with Boiler Room star Giovanni Ribisi, LeBeau went silent for 60 seconds before saying, "So, we might not have the schemes in place to stop this guy."
After a weather delay postponed the final round of the BMW Championship, Zach Johnson fired a 65 to outpace Jim Furyk and Nick Watney, winning the tournament at 16-under. "Man, what a super tournament," Johnson said after surging from behind to take the win. "Just a really sweet victory. And it's my title at 16-under. My super, sweet, 16 under wait that's not on tape is it? Shit."
Whoa, whoa, whoa. How is it mid-September? Did we even have August this year? Are the playoffs really sneaking up on us? This is getting serious, gang. Each team has about 15 games left to win, lose, bargain, plead, suffer, and despair. There are only three weekends of regular-season baseball left, starting today, and here's something important: A fancy word for "third-to-last" is "antepenultimate." Armed with that knowledge, it's time for the antepenultimate weekend countdown. Join me!
The Cleveland Indians, who haven't made the playoffs since 2007, just finished a fairly brutal stretch of baseball. Starting on August 27, they endured 15 games in 16 days against some of the best teams in the game. That list included the Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles, and Kansas City Royals. The first two teams on that list are playoff-bound, and the last two are in the middle of the wild-card race. The Indians are there, too, but they didn't exactly help their own cause. In the 12 games against those above-average teams, they went 4-8. A series against the Mets provided some relief, but not much; they still finished 6-9.
For practical purposes, the damage to the Indians' playoff hopes was minimal. On August 26, before the onslaught, the Indians held a .546 winning percentage and found themselves two games behind Oakland for the final wild-card spot. Now? They come in at .531, but are just 1½ games out of the wild-card race. They have Tampa Bay to thank for that; the Rays' 4-13 slide over a similar period has kept a number of teams hopeful, including the Yankees, Orioles, and Royals. All the Indians really lost was time.
In case you were busy getting bad news from Dr. James Andrews, because that guy has never once given good news in his life, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday:
Miami starter Jose Fernandez dominated with his arm and bat, throwing seven stellar innings and blasting his first career home run, as the Marlins beat the division-leading Braves, 5-2. Fernandez's outing was not without controversy, however, as both benches cleared after Fernandez indulged himself by watching his home run. "I'm disappointed. He's a great kid, but he let this whole city down," said Marlins manager Mike Redmond after the game. "I mean, this is Miami. You can't just stand around in Miami to check out something because it looks good. This is a city all about hard work and discipline, not about showing off and preening."
New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter has been shut down for the remainder of the season, leaving new acquisition and defensive whiz Brendan Ryan as the Yankees presumptive starting shortstop for their playoff push. "Darn," said Yankees starter Andy Pettitte as he high-fived fellow starter Hiroki Kuroda. "Man, that's tough for Derek. I'm gutted. Just totally gutted. For him." Pettitte then did a giddy shuffle and mimed a shortstop going confidently to his left for CC Sabathia's benefit, before adding, "Don't know how we'll get by without the captain."
In case you were busy getting so jacked for football that you passed out at 1:30, here's what you missed in sports last night:
Peyton Manning was at his best, throwing for an NFL record-tying seven touchdowns in the Broncos' 49-27 win over the Baltimore Ravens. "Yeah, but who has the biggest yacht?" asked monocle-and–top hat–wearing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who signed an NFL-record $120.6 million contract in the offseason, while snacking out of a bucket of caviar. Flacco then blinked, allowing his monocle to fall to the ground, where it shattered. "Aww, crap, that was my dress monocle," whined Flacco, while bending over, which caused the top hat on his head to fall into a puddle of mud. "Gadzooks, my top hat," exclaimed Flacco before confessing, "guys, I don't even like caviar. And my yacht's hardly even a yacht. It's really just a big boat. Money isn't everything; why didn't anyone tell me?"
Stanislas Wawrinka dominated a woeful Andy Murray in a surprising 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 straight-set win over the tournament's reigning champion. A disheveled Murray, whose second serve was occasionally topping out at only 75 mph, asked after the match, "Does this mean I didn't win Wimbledon?" When told that of course it didn't, Murray smiled broadly, and added, "I thought not," before cranking up Van Halen's "Panama" on an old Sony boom box.
The weekend is here, and I don't know about you, but I'm ready to sit back, watch some baseball, cry, watch more baseball, think about exercising, back to baseball, cry, baseball, eat, cry, baseball, baseball, cryball, eat, cryercise, baseball, eat. WHO'S WITH ME?!
To approach this with sober objectivity: We might be dealing with the best weekend of baseball so far this season. There are no less than four incredible series matchups, a wonderful, tragic pitchers' duel, and a special bonus slotting in at no. 10
James Shields has been one of the biggest bright spots on an improved Royals team this year. He's on pace to fire more than 200 innings for the seventh consecutive year, while also ranking among the league leaders in ERA. With an average fastball of 92 mph, he isn't a flamethrower like Matt Harvey or Stephen Strasburg. But Shields is a master of the subtle arts, changing speeds, mixing pitch types and locations, and escaping some tough jams.
There are few subtler arts for a pitcher than the ability to hold and pick off runners. R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus recently wrote an in-depth piece breaking down the various ways in which pitchers excel at that skill. Those include Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran's knee-buckle move, which has triggered a league-leading eight pickoff moves this year (and looks suspiciously like a balk).
Shields doesn't have anything quite that deceptive in his bag of tricks. But he still leads baseball in pickoffs over the past three seasons with 17, including a staggering 12 in 2011. We talked to Shields about the fickle nature of pickoff totals, and tricks he's learned to control the running game.
More good news for Detroit — it's in three separate entries this week! Let the good times roll!
10. Hey, Everyone, the Orioles Still Exist (COL-BAL)
Has any team gone from "national darling" to "completely ignored" in one year while still being a really good baseball team? Granted, the Orioles spent last season winning what felt like 87 straight extra-inning games, and their flair for the dramatic has ebbed slightly in 2013. But this club is still 10 games over .500 and just 2½ games back of the last wild-card spot. It's almost a shame that they've been lost in the Dodgers-Pirates-Royals-Rays feisty-underdog shuffle. The Orioles are essentially like your friend's 6-year-old kid who's amazing at piano. The first time you see it, you're genuinely impressed. The second time, you're more like, "OK, we get it, the kid's good at piano, let's do something else," and finally you stop going to their house at all because you can't take the piano anymore. Meanwhile, the kid is like, "What did I do? Sorry for being awesome at the piano, dicks."
August may be the lowliest sports month of all, but we've got ourselves a fantastic little weekend of professional baseball. Feast your eyes, perk your ears, and open your hearts: It's list time.
10. The Battle for Tejas (TEX-HOU)
For so long, we've watched a pair of mighty franchises duel for the hearts and minds of the Lone Star state. One, the Rangers, has been an American League force for years, and even came within a hair's breadth of winning a World Series in 2011. The other is the Houston Astros. One is a perennial heavyweight, boasting big hitters, strong young arms, and the quirky managerial style of Ron Washington. The other is the Houston Astros. One is owned by a great icon of the game, Nolan Ryan, a crusty old maverick surrounded by young geniuses building a dynasty with good old-fashioned Texas grit. The other is the Houston Astros. When these rivals collide this weekend, loyalties across the state will be torn, and only one team will emerge with bragging rights in the mightiest state in the union. There's no way to know who will triumph, but I can tell you this: It won't be the Astros.