Thursday, August 29, 2013

National League Playoff Picture

 The playoffs are fast approaching.  Things are becoming clearer in terms of which teams will be participating.  Here’s a quick run-down of the National League, division by division, and which teams will be involved in some October ball.

NL East:

This is the easiest division because there is only one team to talk about.  The Atlanta Braves recently became the first team to reach the 80-win plateau.  And they will be the only NL East team taking part in the playoffs.  In what was supposed to be one of the tightest divisions in baseball, the Braves have run away with the lead and disappointing seasons from Washington and Philadelphia have made this race fairly hum drum.  Atlanta sports a 13+ game lead over the Nationals and are cruising into October.  And it’s a good thing they have that lead because they have hit some rough waters.  Dan Uggla went to the DL to have Lasik eye surgery.  He’s on his way back.  Jason Heyward took a pitch to the jaw, breaking it and visiting the DL.  He’s eyeing a return in the playoffs.  Brandon Beachy has returned to the DL after only 5 starts coming off of Tommy John this season.  There is inflammation in his surgically repaired elbow, so he’s returning to Dr. James Andrews to let him take a look.  The prevailing opinion is that a player that gets Tommy John taken care of early in his career is fine and will not have problems anymore.  Empirical evidence suggests otherwise.

However even with all those issues, the Braves will not be caught in the NL East.  They will win their division and avoid the dreaded one game wildcard playoff that did them in last year.  They are really just playing for home field throughout the playoffs and even with their injuries they have the pitching staff and bullpen to keep them competitive and give them a good shot of locking that up too.

NL Central:

We go from the easiest division in the league, to the hardest.  It’s also the most interesting.  We have a three-team race between the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.  And it’s a close race, with the teams separated by less than 4 games.

Currently the Cards are in first place.  They’ve played well recently, overtaking the Pirates last week.  The Cards overcame season ending injuries to Rafael Furcal, Chris Carpenter and Jason Motte to have a great year in the NL Central.  They also seem to have a never-ending line of quality young starting pitchers who have come up and settled this rotation (Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha) and this team hasn’t missed a beat.  Add to that a few great individual performances from the expected (Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday), the unexpected (Matt Carpenter) and guys who were trying to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke (Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran) and this team is right where they expect to be.  Their upcoming schedule could make the difference, as they play a ton of games against the Reds and Pirates.  However they’ve faced adversity all season long and knocked it out of the park, so I doubt they’ll blanch at playing their rivals.  These next few weeks will go along way towards sorting out this division.

The Pirates are currently in second in this division by less than 1 game.  They’ve fallen on some hard times, losing 6 of 12 and falling behind a hot Cardinals team.  500 baseball in short stretches isn’t bad (they are 13 for their last 25), but it is when the team behind you is on fire.  The past two seasons have seen the Pirates start hot out of the gate but fade down the stretch and miss the playoffs.  It could not happen again or heads would roll.  The Pirates have stayed hot and near the top of the central standings longer this year than the past two years.  So that means it would take the most epic collapse yet to keep them out of the playoffs.  I just don’t see it happening.  However I wouldn’t be surprised if they fell out of division contention and into the wildcard mix.  They are currently the number 1-wildcard seed.  If they continue to play at 500, which they have for a while now, they could fall into the wildcard mix, but likely not much further beyond that.  Great seasons from McCutchen and Alvarez have powered this offense, and they hope the recent acquisitions of Marlon Byrd and John Buck will give them the extra oomph to make it into October.  They still have a great starting staff and should be getting their closer back soon to settle the bullpen.  This team will be playoff bound for sure this year; I just don’t think it will be as the NL Central champs.

The third team in this division has kicked it into high gear recently in their quest to stay relevant in the NL Central race.  That team is the Cincinnati Reds, last year’s NL Central champs.  The Reds have just dragged through the middle season.  They started out near the top of the standings, but fell to a distant third playing 500 baseball through the middle months.  However they kicked it into high gear after the All Star break, cutting their deficit in half as we approach the final month of the season.  Things aren’t going as the Reds planned, seeing how many people picked them to win the Central (me included).  However they’ve overcome some injuries (Ryan Ludwick, Johnny Cueto, Nick Masset) and are playing great baseball now.  Tony Cigriani has played well for them early on this year (though he’s on the DL now) and their offense has been powered by MVP candidate Brandon Phillips and another strong year from Joey Votto.  They may have the softest remaining schedule of the teams in this division, with healthy doses of the Cubs, Mets, Brewers and Astros.  I definitely see them taking one of the wildcard spots, perhaps even taking home field advantage in that wildcard game.

NL West:

That brings us to the Wild Wild West and the best team in baseball right now, the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Dodgers have won 21 of 27 and have pulled themselves from the West basement to the second best record in the league.  In addition they’ve put almost 10 games between themselves and the next nearest team in their division.  They’ve basically already wrapped up the division, and are playing well enough against their division opponents that the other West teams have fallen from the playoff chase entirely.  The Rockies are no longer in the Wildcard hunt and the Diamondbacks are quickly falling to the wayside as well.  Adrian Gonzalez has been their most consistent hitter, and Hanley Ramirez has played out of his mind when he’s been healthy.  But Yasiel Puig and his 346 AVG have stolen the headlines.  The likely Rookie of the Year has powered this offense to relevance and beyond and made them favorites in this league.  And with Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, having another Cy Young caliber year, the Dodgers are posed to go deep into October.

Going in a completely direction, we have the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Outside of the Atlanta Braves, no team was hotter to start the 2013 season than the Diamondbacks.  They were on fire to in April and May and it looked like they had the division well in hand.  However they have fallen off lately.  Paul Goldschmidt has been an MVP candidate all year, but the rest of the team has not gotten it done behind him.  Their top 3 starters have greatly struggled, as Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Brandon McCarty all have losing records and ERAs north of 4.30.  Kennedy is gone, but the pitching struggles remain.  There have also been issues at the back end of the bullpen with J.J. Putz out a while and Heath Bell and David Hernandez struggling.  They built a big lead, but saw it evaporate and are now only in the running for the wildcard.  And they’ve faded in that race too, falling to about 8 games back.  They are the 3rd team in the wildcard race, but have a huge mountain of games to overcome.  The good news for them is that the 3 teams in front of them are all in the Central division and will play each other a lot.  In addition, the next nearest team to them is the Washington Nationals, and they’ve been a mess.  So they shouldn’t fall further behind.  If they win, they should have a good chance to make it into the playoffs.  But right now they are on the outside looking in, and I think that’s where they’ll stay.

So the last few months of the baseball season should be exciting.  While the NL East and West divisions are set, the Central is up the air with three different teams all contending for the division title.  Those same three teams are also in the wildcard hunt with a hungry Arizona Diamondbacks team that has fallen from first place but is desperately clinging to hope of a Wildcard berth.  It will go down to the wire.  I’m excited to watch it play out.  Here are my picks:

Atlanta Braves-                      NL East Division Winner (home field)
Los Angeles Dodgers-           NL West Division Winner
St. Louis Cardinals-               NL Central Division Winner
Cincinnati Reds-                    Wildcard Berth 1
Pittsburgh Pirates-               Wildcard Berth 2

Let me know your picks.  Use the comments section to share them with me.  Should be very exciting going forward.  Play ball!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Baseball’s Biogensis Antidote Delivers a Different Kind of Poison

D-Day has come and gone.  A week ago, baseball dropped its punishment upon those involved in the Biogensis debacle, which has unseated the Balco mess to become baseball’s worst steroid scandal.  And in that time, I’ve been examining the story.  This whole thing is a black eye in the history of the sport.  The entire situation is rotten; the players, the proliferation of PEDs after the continuous insistence of baseball that the sport was getting clean and the much anticipated reactionary penalty that was finally handed down.  All of it.  It all stinks to high heaven and continues to steal headlines in what is America’s greatest pastime.

This has been coming for a while.  When we heard the initial story out of the Miami New Times we knew this was bad.  And while some would have had us believe it wasn’t a big deal when it first burst onto the scene, the skeptics among us knew better.  And who wouldn’t be a skeptic at this point?  The All Time HR champion is a cheater.  The 3 players who broke the single season home run record are all cheaters.  A-Rod was our hope to reclaim our record books with a non-performance enhancing drug user, and he came out years ago admitting to taking steroids when he was playing his best baseball with the Texas Rangers.  It may seem cynical, but to buy the home run hitters of the early 2000s as clean players or not to question the guys who come from nowhere to have monster seasons is now par for the course.  And if you don’t question it, then you seem naïve.  Neither moniker is a good one, but both are understandable and to be expected.  What are we supposed to believe now?  And this Biogenesis mess seems to be the worst one yet.

I won’t go into the whole history of it on this blog.  For a full background, I’d suggest THIS ARTICLE by Big League Stew.   My focus is more on the punishment, the build-up, the threats and the colander of leaks that came from A-Rod’s camp, the New York Yankees and the offices of Major League Baseball.  None of these parties come out of this mess looking clean.

It used to be easy knowing the good guys from the bad.  When you were a kid, there were bad people who did bad things.  Then there were good people who punished the bad people.  There weren’t any people with ulterior motives.  Everything was fair and measured.  And when the good people punished the bad people, you were happy and felt like justice had been taken care of.  And while I can’t speak for everyone, I can honestly say that I don’t feel that way here.  There were cheaters, they were caught and they were punished.  For the most part, I’m okay with what went down.  Of the 13 players suspended, it is my belief that 12 of them got the proper punishment.  In my opinion, Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and the others who got a 50 game suspension for their first offense are fine.  That’s what was collectively bargained and agreed upon, and that’s what they got.  Ryan Braun* (see footnote) got that same suspension, plus 15 extra games for being a sanctimonious jerk. 

That was all good.  But that’s not what took the headlines.  The suspension everyone was focused on, and rightly so, was Alex Rodriguez’s suspension of 211 games.

Alex Rodriguez apparently was deeper into Biogenesis than any other player.  Tony Bosch personally came over to his house to give him the steroids on multiple occasions according to eyewitness accounts.  There are rumors that A-Rod was involved in putting Bosh in touch with other players that were looking to use PEDs.  And baseball claims that he interfered with their investigation by attempting to buy his medical records from the Biogensis clinic.  All of that, coupled with the fact that he admitted to taking steroids in the past is MLB’s reason for A-Rod’s extensive punishment.

Alex Rodriguez sees things differently.  He admits to nothing, and his press conferences are almost comical in the way that he poorly deflects direct questions and spends 20 minutes saying absolutely nothing.  And while he admits nothing, his people are working hard behind the scenes to get his side of the story out there.  He claims his ties with Biogenesis are the same as the others, he says he did nothing to interfere with the investigation, though at times he seemingly admits to doing so by claiming that the records mentioned are actually his records and he has as much a right to them as MLB, perhaps even more so.  And lastly he points out that he’s never failed a test and his admission in the past about steroid use can’t be held against him, as baseball’s current drug policy wasn’t in place when he took the drugs or admitted to taking them.  In addition, every other player who didn’t fail a test got a 50 game ban.  He should be treated the same way.  All fair points.

So that is the battle in a nutshell.  MLB says that A-Rod did more on the Biogenesis front than his peers, justifying his 211 game ban and A-Rod claims that there is no precedent for a punishment like this.  MLB makes the argument that the collectively bargained agreement only deals with first time offenders for failed tests, not for non-analytical positives.  But then A-Rod points out that all the other non-analytical first time users got 50 game suspensions.  Both sides are wrong, both sides are right.   That’s what makes this so frustrating.  You are taking sides with bad characters no matter which way you look.

There is another party to this mess, though they are less involved.  To believe them, they aren’t involved at all.  That party is the New York Yankees.  The Yankees agreed to the most ill conceived contract extension on the planet when they gave A-Rod guaranteed money to make him about an extra $100 million and pay him until he was 42 years old.  The Yankees want to be out from that deal.  If they say otherwise they are lying.  No one would blame them for admitting it was a bad deal and wanting to be done with it, but they never will.  That’s part of what makes them seem disingenuous.  They also have done all they can to keep A-Rod and his toxicity away from their major league team.  It’s a smart move that no one can blame them for.  However, whenever they are questioned about it they claim that it is not their intention, even though no one could blame them for telling a truth that is so plain a child could point it out.  If A-Rod had been banned for life, the Yankees would be out from under that contract.  If he were to miss all of this season, then insurance would pick up a portion of this year’s salary.  Both of those situations greatly help the Yankees.  It’s obvious.  And while it’s not okay for them to pursue either route, admitting that it would be helpful financially would enable people to cut them some slack.  They make no admissions, and reportedly have worked behind the scenes to ensure that A-Rod didn’t come back this year and also reportedly encouraged Bud Selig to pursue a lifetime ban.  They deny it, and have every right to.  However when they refuse to admit to the obvious, it makes their claims about these much more serious matters also ring false, though they are likely true as there is no evidence to the contrary.

Have the Yankees done anything wrong?  Probably not.  While they can root from the sidelines for A-Rod to be gone, they cannot do anything to influence that decision.  They claim they haven’t and I honestly believe they wouldn’t do anything so brazen.  Selig is an owner’s commissioner so he’s well aware of what would help the Yankees, the biggest team in the biggest market.  It’s fair to say he hasn’t overlooked their needs.  But you can’t blame the Yankees for that.  Have they conspired to keep A-Rod off the field, or at the very least away from the club?  That gets trickier.  This whole season he was rehabbing in Tampa, FL.  I see no fault in that.  Jeter was away from the team while he got better.  However when he returned, only to get hurt again, he stayed with the major league club.  A-Rod was not given that option.  He was in New York, about to play his first game when he came to the Yankees and told them that he hurt his quad.  He was promptly put on the disabled list, over his own objections and insistence that he could play through it, and sent away to heal and begin a rehab assignment.  That’s where the Yankees went astray.  They have the right to do what they think is best for the player.  But they delayed his rehab assignment by a few days and chose to keep Alex away from the team while Derek was allowed to stay with the team.  Why the different treatment?  By delaying the rehab assignment, they moved A-Rod’s return back until the Commissioner was ready to hand down Biogensis penalties.  They gave no reason as to the delay, and it smacks of keeping him off the field this season to collect insurance on the contract.  The Yankees claim that wasn’t the case, but again, I tire of them claiming utter innocence on everything.  One can only accept these claims so many times.  And if they can’t admit that they see a benefit from the obvious truth of A-Rod being banned for life, the rest of their pleas fall on doubtful ears.  They may not have explicitly done anything wrong, but I suspect they did all they could within the rules to keep A-Rod from the field.  It may not have been wrong, but it certainly wasn’t right.

Now to Alex Rodriguez.  His folly is the most obvious.  He cheated and lied about it.  It’s not good.  In fact it’s bad.  In addition, he made a number of PR blunders including coming out on Twitter claiming he was ready for a rehab assignment without speaking to the Yankees, to trying to purchase his medical records from Biogenesis in what we all know was an attempt to block MLB’s investigation, to getting a second opinion from a doctor about his injury without clearing it with the team and getting him to go to news outlets making a fool of himself.  He chose a doctor with PED tie-ins in his past who didn’t see any X-Rays or examine the patient in person.  Basically, Alex told him he felt good over the phone, and that doctor decided to go to every TV station, radio station and newspaper that would see him to share that news.  A-Rod is a PR nightmare, a man with a wrecked legacy and someone who desperately wants to be liked so much, that it makes others not like him.  It’s a vicious circle.  There is no doubt he is in the wrong.  He’s the most hated athlete in the United States, and he continues to give us reasons to dislike him.  There is almost no possible way to make people take his side and feel bad for him.  Successfully doing that would be a massive PR blunder the likes of which this world has never seen.

Major League Baseball succeeded in making such a blunder.  Throughout this whole process they had an air about them that seemed holier than thou.  They had a secret investigation going into the Biogenesis scandal, held their cards close to the vest, turned Tony Bosch against his former patients and let out convenient leaks to turn public opinion in their favor and scare players into settling for deals.  Sometimes it worked (Braun) and other times it didn’t (A-Rod).  But they are desperate to be seen as the heavy hand of the law doling out the punishments to those who broke the rules.  Did it work?  Kind of.  They banned a lot of guys.  But they also seemed to relish the attention.  Don’t get me wrong, they don’t want their sport sullied by PED users (not anymore anyway….they didn’t mind it in 1998 when it made them more money than God).  But they do like the attention on their investigation, their punishing of those in the wrong and the image of them doing everything they can to crack down on PEDs in the game.  Bud Selig does not want to be remembered as the Steroid Era Commissioner so he’s doing everything he can to change the narrative.  But that book has already made its way to the publisher.  No time for new chapters, no matter how much he tries.  And by God he is trying.  But his heavy handedness is not winning him any friends in this game.  Last year after Braun got out of his suspension, he had the gall to have the arbitrator who ruled against him fired.  I guess that arbitrator is lucky that Selig didn’t have him killed, but come on!  You disagree with the boss and you are booted.  That makes me feel confident in the ability of future arbitrators to deal with these issues openly and without pre-conceived notions.  I’m sure the players feel similarly.  So before this mess even started, Selig showed signs of calling plays from the playbooks of Goodell or Stern.

Then came the Biogenesis mess.  They claimed this was nothing.  No big deal.  Investigative reporting proved that they were wrong.  They claimed that Tony Bosh couldn’t be trusted, was a quack and that this was a small incident.  Evidence said otherwise.  Then, Tony Bosch tried to work out a deal with the authorities by agreeing to help baseball in its investigation, and suddenly he was a man who must be listened to.  MLB came out and said that they would work together with this unimpeachable witness who knew everything that happened.  As they worked with him, baseball saw opportunities to be seen as tough on PEDs and didn’t let these opportunities slip through their fingers.  They conveniently leaked that they were going hard after A-Rod, the most hated player in the game, and Ryan Braun, a phony whose stock dropped considerably after his PED mess last year.  What better way to get ahead in the hearts of fans than to punish the men who fans hated most?

But they overstepped.  They were arrogant.  They were secretive.  They acted like they were better than others involved.  They didn’t let the story die, claiming that they would be delivering punishment soon when the All Star break rolled around so it was all that was talked about.  Then on the final day of the trade deadline they again claimed that punishment was imminent.  And then on Friday August 3rd they made sure to tell everyone that punishment was coming on Monday to be sure that it was all that was talked about over the weekend.  Make no mistake; baseball saw this as an opportunity.  They almost seemed giddy it happened.  And they were brash.  They made threats to suspend everyone involved 100 games.  They claimed taking the drugs was the first offense and lying about it was offense number 2.  That never would hold up in an arbitration hearing, but it didn’t have to.  They just wanted to turn public opinion and frighten the players.  Most were ready to deal.  The biggest feather in their cap was Braun taking a deal for 65 games, though in hindsight it seems that he got the best deal of anyone.  When they heard from A-Rod’s camp (who did plenty of their own leaking) that he would fight any suspension, they threatened to ban him for life to show they weren’t kidding around.  This was another ban that would never hold up, but that was never the point.  Upon hearing that A-Rod just wanted to play this season and would appeal any punishment handed down, they threatened to ban him using the “best interests of baseball” clause, which is immune to appeal.  However that was one of their biggest missteps as it brought down the Player’s Union against them, a VERY powerful organization that had let them run their investigation unmolested to this point.  Somehow baseball made the guilty seem innocent in their headlong rush to punish them.  They backed off the “best interests of baseball” route quickly, but the threats still remained.  And with the country in a fever pitch, they finally relinquished their spotlight and delivered their verdict.

All of the players involved, except A-Rod would get a 50 game suspension.  Though these were non-analytical positives and thus not subject to the collectively bargained agreement, they felt that that punishment was fair for these first time offenders.  For A-Rod, they chose a 211 game ban.  That was more than 4 times what the others got.  They claimed that it was for so much more, that he wasn’t really a first time offender and that his meddling in their investigation was akin to breaking the law and should be treated as such.  (Mind you, no one involved in this scandal actually broke the law other than Anthony Bosch…. the star witness for Major League Baseball).  They claimed he was lucky it wasn’t a lifetime ban and that they were letting him play while he appealed.  The fact is he’s not lucky.  It’s his right to play through an appeal.  And even the threat of not letting him do that was a violation of his due process.  And if there’s one thing we love in this country, it’s due process.  Because we don’t want our good guys to break the rules.  We want them to win by following them.  Is it naïve?  Yes.  But we still want it.  And when those rules area egregiously ignored or disregarded, (a la the occasional Roger Goodell punishment in the NFL…or anything David Stern ever does in the NBA) we feel that our “good guys” are no better than the bad ones, having stooped to their level to punish them.  And that’s how I feel in this case.  In the same way that A-Rod’s desperate need to be liked makes me hate him, baseball’s arrogant assurances that they are in the right make me suspect that what they are doing is wrong.  And somehow, they’ve turned one of the most hated men in the country (not named Jeffrey Loria) into someone that people now feel sorry for.  What a coup.

The PED era is an infection in baseball.  We are working hard to get over it, but it continues to metastasize and spread.  While the numbers may have dwindled, the impact is just as harsh.  Bud Selig was the Commissioner for much of this era.  He could have done more to stop it in the past, but at least he is acting now.  However over-reacting to make a point or try to change history is irresponsible and a waste of time.  A-Rod is a PED user who deserves to be punished.  But you can’t punish a guy more than everyone else because nobody likes him.  And the Yankees have plenty to gain from A-Rod being banned for life.  Claiming otherwise makes them seem disingenuous at best and outright liars at worst.  But while they had motivation and perhaps a few words of encouragement for the Commissioner, the collusion between the two parties as painted by Alex Rodriguez’s camp is unlikely, certainly in that scope, and at the very least could never be proven.  It’s lies upon lies.  All are good, all are bad.  Nobody is perfect or even right in this mess and all parties are wrong to such serious degrees that the things they are right about are overlooked.  It’s a disease, an infection upon our game.  Not just the PEDs, but the ego and hypocrisy and greed and legacy building.  We have to fight this infection, but not by cutting off a limb with a scalpel of record setting punishments and self-righteous indignation.  The body of our game won’t survive such a radical course of treatment.  And while we decide what to do, the question continues to hang in the air, which is worse:  the symptom or the cure?

 *The short version of the Braun story is that he tested positive for PEDs last year.  He appealed and got off on a technicality.  It was some good work by his lawyers to get him out of the suspension, though there was little doubt that he’d actually taken the PEDs he tested positive for.  At that point he went on about how the system was broken and it was just and right that he was able to get out of the suspension.  He essentially thumbed his nose at MLB and the whole process even though he was guilty.  His hypocrisy led to him being suspended for an extra 15 games.