Baseball at the quarter pole: The improbable is in vogue

If the baseball season were a horse race, Memorial Day would be the far turn way off there by the edge of the woods with all the combatants clustered and barely discernible even through binoculars, shrouded in mist. In other words, it’s early.

And yet hard to believe as it may seem – with hockey and basketball still cresting – more than a quarter of the regular baseball season has come and gone and if nothing is certain, much is surprising. The seasons jam together in these times in a kind of frenzied on-rush. When does hockey season end and baseball season begin? Hard to tell, in our times.

What alone is clear so far is that it’s going to be one of those years – wacky, with the improbable becoming routine. Little so far has gone much according to alleged form and the pre-season prophecies of the pundits have rarely looked weaker. But then baseball’s charm derives from it being the least predictable of the games.

Consider this. What do the Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Indians, White Sox, Mariners, Marlins, Pirates. and Padres have in common? The answer: Every one of them was widely considered a bona-fide contender in the pre-season calculations, yet all had losing records at the Memorial Day marker. In New England, this comes as no surprise, the folly of irrational expectations having long been a phenomenon in which we’ve long deemed ourselves expert. On the other hand, you have the Twins, Astros, and Cubs. Each has been a pleasant surprise.
Under its estimable new skipper, Paul Molitor, Minnesota, lately an unfamiliar cellar-dweller, was 1-6 the first week of the season then 25-12 over the next seven in the AL’s toughest division.

When Sports Illustrated warned that Houston was on the rise and would be champs in two years, snickers were widespread since the Astros have emitted faint signs of life about twice since the Astrodome was new and Rusty Staub was their featured act. All of which makes their coming of age this season the more stunning. They’ve had MLB’s best record since Week One and led the AL West by  seven games on Memorial Day. Not too soon to presume they’re “for real.”

As for Chicago’s eternally forlorn Cubs, whose devotion to the  perpetuation of their own misery became an art form, the impossibly unreachable “next year” they’ve been moaning about to levels of tedium un-witnessed since the Red Sox mercifully dispelled their alleged ‘Curse of the Bambino’ may finally have arrived. Amen, says I. Sooner or later all good things must come to an end.  

The AL has been weird and may stay that way. But in the NL, the Dodgers and Nationals – after a stammering start – have pretty much matched expectations while the Cardinals, arguably this era’s smartest and best run organization, remain the Cardinals.

Noteworthy, albeit for the wrong reasons, are the Dodgers. They got to be heavy favorites mainly on the basis of their payroll – a hideous $265 million – which is nearly four times the payroll of, for example, those Astros whose entire roster of young and unknown hotshots, currently the talk of the town, is costing them a mere $69 million. We make too much of payrolls and gargantuan contracts and free agent spending binges, something fans of the Local Nine are pondering again and with good reason. Record payroll is more likely to be a measure of front office incompetence than potential greatness, a truth the Yankees have been devoutly affirming near all of the last 14 seasons.

It would be fun to see the Dodgers fail. That’s the burden the fattest cat on the block always bears. So far, they’ve looked almost as hefty as their payroll although of late, and quietly, the defending champion Giants, who spent little and got ravaged by off-season defections, have scratched back and are now nipping at the Dodgers’ heels. This may go on all season and in a tight race the managerial match-up of Bruce Bochy and Don Mattingly does not favor the Dodgers.

Giants-Dodgers in the West, Cards-Cubs in the Central, and Nats-Mets in the East could fashion three spicy NL races the rest of the way, although I’d be chary about betting the ranch on the ever over-rated Mets staying the course now that David Wright, if not their best certainly their most important everyday player, looks like he may be lost for the duration. The infernal injury factor can render all bets off.  

So what about the American League, which is where our hearts, hereabouts, lie and where it has always been all about the Red Sox and Yankees? Why should this year be any different, even if neither measures up to its former self.

It is much too early to give up on the Red Sox, but it may not be too early to recognize that reports of their impending runaway dominance were vastly premature. If they can find and groom a competent pitching staff between now and the Ides of August, they might win their division comfortably, such being the depths of said division’s mediocrity. On the other hand, once they solve their pitching problems they might just discover that their alleged titanic offense, which in their lofty pre-season calculations they believed would scare foes into submission, is an illusion.

It’s not just the pitching. The entire makeup of this team is suspect. In February, John Henry was chortling over off-season moves that he clearly believed had made his merry band invincible.  Three months later he must be gasping as he ponders the $442 million (including options) he has invested in Messrs. Ramirez, Sandoval, Porcello, Moncado, Castillo, Uehara, and Masterson. If it’s too early for conclusions, Henry and his pals no longer enjoy the luxury of being able to mock the Yankees for their wanton and wooly-headed spending.

But if so, it may be one of the precious few satisfactions the Yankees can hope for this season. They had a nice early surge and had everybody talking when they grabbed a five-game lead and were vaguely looking like the team they used to be. It lasted three weeks, and by Memorial Day, coming off a dreadful tailspin of 10 notably ugly losses in 11 games, the illusory mood had vanished, not likely to be soon reclaimed.

This team has no margin for error or adversity. When Masahiro Tanaka went down, they got chilled to the core. When Jacoby Ellsbury twisted his knee, they lost six straight. A-Rod will smack the occasional homer but hit about .250 while clogging the basepaths and killing them when allowed in the field.  Mark Teixeira and Stephen Drew are on borrowed time. Carlos Beltran and C.C. Sabathia are on fumes. Didi Gregorius is Brian Cashman’s latest mistake and, perhaps, his last. Dellin Bettances and Andrew Miller are indisputably grand but can only be assets when given a lead to protect. The only thing Slade Heathcott has in common with Mickey Mantle is that both come from Oklahoma.

At best this is a bridge year for the Yankees. They dearly hope!

Elsewhere in the AL, one senses no team rising to anything approaching eminence unless it’s the Royals, who may be proving they’re no one-year wonder, and those amazing Astros. The Tigers contend but vaguely disappoint.  The Indians and White Sox are over-rated. Out West, Houston could, and maybe should, run away with it unless the Mariners, second only to the Red Sox among first quarter’s busts, snap out of it.

As for the East, our turf, it’s a wasteland and only a complete reversal by Boston will change that. Toronto’s pitching problems are worse and Baltimore’s are little better. Tampa always has decent pitching and the dogged Rays without Joe Maddon remain plucky.  Nice but not enough! The decline of this once gem of a consortium is shocking.

So are you ready for the Cubs and Astros in the World Series? Why not!

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