The improbable baseball realities no one saw coming
Then the season happens.
The one in which St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt is being outperformed offensively by the guy who replaced him with the Diamondbacks, Christian Walker, and the guy to whom the Cardinals never gave an extended chance at first base — Luke Voit of the Yankees.
The one in which the Mariners move on from four of their five most productive hitters last year (Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura and Denard Span) and yet are second in the AL in runs per game.
The one in which you have to begin to blend the term “Cy Young candidate” with Detroit’s Matt Boyd, Minnesota’s Jake Odorizzi and Texas’ Mike Minor.
You begin the season with assumptions, beliefs and predictions, then the season happens. So with most clubs reaching the one-quarter mark this weekend, here are some thoughts on what 25 percent of a season makes me think is possible today that I did not think probable when Seattle and Oakland played in Tokyo in late March to begin the schedule:
1. Cody Bellinger is now in the conversation for second-best player in the majors. Until signs of slippage — and not yet, despite more drab Angels play around him — Mike Trout is the king.
But boy is the next group burgeoning and fascinating. One man’s rest of the top 10 in alphabetical order: Ronald Acuna, Nolan Arenado, Javy Baez, Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, Aaron Judge, Francisco Lindor and Christian Yelich. The hardest omission: Matt Chapman. Not listed: Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
If I had to bet on who would be No. 1 in five years, it would be Acuna, 21, or Bellinger, 23. Acuna is a wonderful all-around player, but more than anything, his advanced hitting skills create wonder of what he might be producing at ages 25-27.
As for Bellinger, I think he might win if a decathlon were held among all baseball players. When it comes to athleticism, the most common adjective executives/scouts use for Bellinger is “freakish.” Scouts get him consistently at 3.75 seconds to first base. That is elite. He has power. He is among the best hitters, runners and defenders in the game — and he can defend across the outfield or at first. Plus, he has adaptability as the refinement in his offense from last year to this season shows — cutting down drastically on strikeouts and, thus, lifting his hard-hit rates.
This is a gifted athlete whose baseball skills are catching up.
2. The Phillies have a chance to win the NL East comfortably. The expectation was four teams would go nip-and-tuck the whole way, or at least three, or two for sure. But through Friday, there were eight NL teams above .500 and just one (Philadelphia at 21-16) was in the NL East.
The Phillies have plenty of flaws, including a roller-coaster, good-not-great result so far from Harper. But their rotation is strong, and more than any other NL East team, they have the farm system/gung-ho spirit to fix what is necessary during the season. The Braves definitely have the system, but their ownership has squeezed dollars. That would be a shame, because with Josh Donaldson, Atlanta’s reborn offense is terrific.
The Mets are amid a key 13-game stretch in which they could feast on the Marlins (six games) and perhaps finish off the Nationals (seven games) before Memorial Day weekend. Or they could squander this period, intensifying the Mickey Callaway watch and suggesting another lost season.
3. The Nationals aren’t better without Harper. I thought they would be best served spreading his money around to stop being such a top-heavy team and removing drama from a soap opera-ish organization. But the Nats are still top heavy and still a soap opera.
Washington has a contingent of about seven terrific players then a steep fall-off. The Nats have really missed one of those stars, shortstop Trea Turner (broken finger), who is their catalyst. And they generally have dealt with a lot of injuries. But as opposed to, say, the Yankees, the Nats again have not had the culture (even without Harper) to respond with resolve.
Instead, the unsteadiness of leadership continues, with pitching coach Derek Lilliquist already fired and manager Davey Martinez (in Year 2) in peril. When Stephen Strasburg and Harper were taken with the first overall picks in 2009-10, the future was promising. But the team never won a playoff series while Harper was there and now seems in need of a reboot.
4. The Twins are good. Now, I picked Minnesota to win the AL Central, but that was more atmospheric than a vote for the Twins. Yes, I thought they were improved, but I also anticipated the Indians being down a grade or two and 57 games against the Royals, Tigers and White Sox — who I expected would be the three worst non-Orioles teams in the AL.
But the Twins aren’t just good because what is around them is bad. They have increased power — evolving into more of a strikeout staff and leading the majors in slugging percentage. Despite adding Cruz, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Perez and Jonathan Schoop, the Twins lowered their payroll. Combine that with a strong farm system and they are in position to upgrade.
In fact, I think the two most interesting buyers could be the Twins and Padres. San Diego has arguably the majors’ best farm system, blossoming talent and a fervor to try to win now — exemplified by the free agent signs of Eric Hosmer and Machado. The Padres have young starters with innings caps, so could they be a landing place for Dallas Keuchel? Could the Twins deepen their bullpen with Craig Kimbrel? Both teams have performed well enough over the first quarter of the 2019 season to open possibilities for the next quarter.
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