Pitchers and catchers are reporting to their respective teams. Spring Training is beginning. Baseball has returned.
This is also the time of year when baseball magazines, full of pre-season predictions, make themselves available. I got mine at CVS. Reading through its 200+ pages, I chose a dozen players and topics I will follow through this season. What will you look forward to in 2019?
Where will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado land? And how much will it cost to obtain their services? How much of an impact will they have on their teams? Harper has played 7 years. Yes, he’s been here that long. He was fantastic in his MVP year (2015). He can produce 30+ home runs and work for walks, but can he be the dependable center of a team’s franchise –and is he worth what he’ll be paid? For me the answers are: maybe, but he needs to show what he’s worth now (he’s 26) and, of course, he’ll be overpaid.
Machado is the same age and has the same amount of experience. He’s a more consistent player. He’ll give you 30+ home runs, hit .290 and provide fine defense at shortstop or third base. He’ll fit into a team’s plans easier and cost less. I hope the Phillies get him.
Mike Trout (see above) will be a joy to watch and appreciate. The only question is: will he be a star or the G.O.A.T.? Either way, he is more valuable than either Harper or Machado. He will be the face of the franchise on and off the field. He’s the player who’s worth the money he’ll get. He’s Roy Hobbs without the need to be great; it’ll come naturally. Remember when people realized Ken Griffey, Jr. was the real thing. Trout is capable of being even better. I think he IS baseball’s future, not Harper.
Nolan Arenado. And how good is this guy? I think in time he will be at least the equal of Mike Schmidt. Obviously, he can hit. And he wins a Gold Glove every year. We could be watching the greatest third baseman ever.
Miguel Cabrera. I remember when he was 22 and putting up a year of .323, 78 EBH, with 100+ RS and RBI. I thought: “How good can he be?” Answer: We’re watching another Hall of Famer with 500+ home runs and 3,000 hits –unless injuries derail him again.
Ichiro Suzuki. He will come back for a 2 game encore because he’ll open the year with 2 exhibition games and 2 for real games to start the season. They will be played in Japan. What a coincidence! He will say good-bye in from of family and fans. A fitting tribute for an exceptional player. And, yes, he will also go to Cooperstown, as well.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. He may begin the year in the minor leagues but will be in the majors this year. Why? The scouts say he’s got nothing to learn about hitting. Plus, his Father V.G., SR. goes into the Hall of Fame in July. HE could hit any pitch, including if it bounced. For me, the 3 best players I ever saw were Mays, Clemente, and V. G., Sr. Junior is following a tough act. But if he does well, what a treat it will be.
Jose Altuve. Another of my favorite players and a reason to welcome baseball’s return. Let’s see: MVP in 2017; 3rdin 2016 MVP voting (behind Trout and Mookie Betts); 3 batting titles; 4 consecutive 200 hit seasons; hit “only” .316 last year because of injury; and the soul of the Astros. Watching him is worth your ticket price, no matter the cost. At 5’6”, has there ever been a player this valuable?
Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. In 2018, the NYY won 100 games in large part because they hit more home runs than any team in the AL. But Stanton and Judge weren’t as productive as fans had hoped. Stanton came on board and his HR total dropped from 58 to 38. He hit only .266 with 211 strikeouts. Judge didn’t do as well as expected either. His HR total dropped from 50 to 27, with only 67 RBI. Both of them need to improve their and the team’s records. The Yankees will field another good team, but the expectations for their team and its payroll is always for a title –it would be their 28th. Will the two big –literally—home run hitters provide 80-100 round-trippers? I won’t be the only one watching.
Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Clayton Kershaw. (see above) These are 3 pitchers whose performances I’ll be watching all season. All have a future in the Hall of Fame if they can continue the excellent performances they have provided in the past. Age could limit their effectiveness. Verlander and Scherzer are 35 and while Kershaw is only 30, his innings pitched have been reduced by injuries for the last 3 years. Verlander was productive last year. He finished second in the Cy Young voting because he had 16 wins, a 2.52 ERA, 214 IP, and 290 strikeouts. Scherzer had a fine year as well. He, too, was a second place finisher for the Cy Young as he posted a record of 18 wins, a 2.53 ERA, 220.2 IP, with 300 Ks. For these two men, a sudden drop in performance is not expected. And if they can produce like in the past for a few more years, Cooperstown will be calling. But Kershaw is a different matter. Generally considered the finest pitcher of his generation, back injuries have limited his starts and IP, if not his ERA (2.73 is his highest in the last 3 years). His overall record is fine (39 – 13) as is his WHIP (1.041 is his highest in 2016-18). His career ERA of 2.39 and career WHIP of 1.005 say the talent could still be there. But he’s had only 30+ starts in one of he last 5 years. At their best, these three men deserve serious consideration for the HOF, but age or injury could rob them of future praise.
Joe Maddon is a manager I have admired for his creativity and rapport in the clubhouse since he took over guidance of the Cubs in 2015. His 387 regular season wins and World Series win in 2016 also are evidence of his skill. But his quick departure from post season play last year –and the fact that he’s on the last of his contract—may limit his stay in Chicago. I think his future depends on good health (for Kris Bryant), continued effectiveness by his offense (led by Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez) and more quality pitching from the entire staff (plus more innings from Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. He has been colorful and creative so far in Chicago. I hope he can continue to do well.
The St. Louis Cardinals have won more Championships than any other team in the NL (11). They have had a winning record for the past 11 years. But 2011 was their last Championship year. They are known for a fine minor league system and knowledgeable and loyal fans. But a winning year is not the same as a title. Two additions in the off season may put them over the top. Paul Goldschmidt has been added to improve their offense and reliever Andrew Miller will help the bullpen. I think St. Louis will improve significantly in 2019.
The Philadelphia Phillies. I’ve been a fan of the Phils since 1950, and I’ve seen some lean years. Last season, they finished the year with a 17 -34 run. I only saw 2 bright spots on the roster. Aaron Nola (see above) had a fine year finishing 3rdin the Cy Young voting. He went 17 – 6, with a 2.37 ERA. And Rhys Hoskins finished his first full season with 34 homers and 96 RBIs. That is a small base upon which to build a winning team. But the Phils, through trades and free agent signings, have added 4 good players to their roster. Catcher J. T. Realmuto, shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and reliever David Robertson should significantly improve the lineup. Talk of the Phillies signing Manny Machado and/or Bryce Harper may be blowing smoke, but they’ve made a number of steps in the right direction. The season should benefit from new faces.