Tag Archives: Boston Red Sox

Christmas shopping spree

A week ago I wrote the following:

“The MLB Winter Meetings have begun in San Diego and plenty of people are speculating about what big free agent news will be announced over the next few days (likely very little, based on recent years)”.

You could say I was a long way off the mark with that comment, although maybe I can latch onto the final caveat to save a bit of face.

Over the past two off-seasons there has been considerable discontent among players as to how the free agent market has failed to develop in the way they expected. Both times the fall-out descended into an argument with teams on one side and players and agents on the other. It takes two sides to make a deal. Whether it was the players being greedy or the teams being cheap depended on which side of the fence you were shouting from.

The first month and a half of the 2019/20 off-season can’t help but make you lean towards the players and agents on this one.

Take Mike Moustakas as a prime example. He had to accept one year deals in each of the previous two off-seasons due to finding no multi-contact offers to his liking. This time around he’s signed a four-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds. Whilst we do have to take the qualifying offer, and resulting loss of a draft pick, into account, that doesn’t go far enough as an explanation as to why he suddenly is now worthy of a multi-year commitment. The difference this time is in a greater number of teams looking to add a quality infielder.

It comes back to a topic I discussed just over a month ago, that of the essential element of competition that drives a free agent market. The impasse in the past two off-seasons has come from teams not upping their offers because they knew that they didn’t have to as part of winning the bidding, whilst players and agents were waiting for better offers that they thought should come, but never did.

This year, things have changed.

The Philadelphia Phillies were one of the few teams to make a big push a year ago, not least in the Bryce Harper contract, and the end result was making it eight consecutive seasons without a play-off appearance. The Phillies were never going to stand still after that disappointment and they’ve acted by bringing in Joe Girardi as manager to replace Gabe Kapler and then signing Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118m contract and Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14m contract.

Their NL East rivals, the Washington Nationals, were not going to take their foot off the gas after winning the World Series either. Having lost Harper last year, and rightly expecting to lose Anthony Rendon this year, there was no way they were going to let Stephen Strasburg be tempted by another team’s offer. That was why they blew everyone else out of the water with their seven-year, $245m contract offer that Strasburg accepted on Monday. It’s a huge commitment in a pitcher who has had injury problems in the past and, by all accounts, was not looking to leave Washington anyway, but the Nationals were not prepared to take any chances. They could afford to offer that contract, so they did.

This immediately ignited the market for Gerrit Cole. Strasburg’s deal took the other outstanding starter off the board and also helped to set the parameters for the contract Cole clearly was going to command.

A year ago, everyone was waiting for the New York Yankees to jump in and ramp up the bidding stakes for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. There was no waiting around this year. The Yankees’ record of making the World Series at least once in every decade from the 1920s on came to an end in their ALCS defeat to the Houston Astros. With no Bronx Fall Classics in the 2010s, and a team with a great offence and bullpen but questionable starting pitching, there was no way that the Yankees would allow Cole to go anywhere else. No messing about: they put the largest ever contract for a pitcher on the table, nine-years, $324m, to make sure he became a Yankee.

And that then put the LA Angels on the clock. It was already a source of embarrassment for owner Arte Moreno that his team had squandered the first eight full seasons of Mike Trout, genuinely in the running to be considered the greatest player of all-time by the end of his career, by turning it into just one Division Series defeat. Having given Trout the most lucrative contract ever (12 years, $426.5M) to stay with the team for years to come prior to the 2019 season, there was no way that the Angels could get through this off-season without signing a big-ticket free agent.

With Strasburg and Cole off the market, the Angels immediately offered Anthony Rendon a seven-year, $245m contract. Just as the Nationals couldn’t let Strasburg leave and the Yankees couldn’t let Cole sign elsewhere, the Angels were prepared to offer whatever it took to make sure they didn’t miss out on Rendon.

This is what happens when teams with big pockets are motivated to out-spend each other to win now. Whatever Rob Manfred may try to claim, that has not been the context in which the free agent market has played out over the past two off-seasons.

It’s made for an exciting Winter Meetings and sets up the rest of the off-season perfectly.

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: London, Yankees and Red Sox

Although we’re a few days on from Tuesday’s MLB London Series press conference, the excitement created by it is still palpable.

Many of us have known for several years that MLB was serious about bringing games to London and, more recently, that a 2019 series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees was almost certainly going to happen.

That didn’t make the announcement any the less thrilling, though. There have been false dawns in the past and so the potential for it to be postponed to another year, and then maybe cancelled altogether, couldn’t be completely shaken off.

The sight of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and co making it official, and confirming a 2020 series is on track too, not only gives all in the UK baseball community something to look forward to, but something to rally behind to raise the profile of the sport more widely. This blog post from BaseballSoftballUK puts it into context perfectly.

And don’t forget to contribute to the latest Batflips and Nerds survey if you haven’t done so yet.

Configuration of the playing field

Yankee fan (and Norwich City fan, so I’ll forgive him) Dave Clarke put together some potential field dimension plans for the London Stadium on Twitter.

Since Dave’s efforts, the preliminary dimensions of the field have been reported in various sites Stateside, such as this report at TheStar.com:

“The centre-field fence will be an inviting target, just 385 feet from home plate under the preliminary configuration of the stadium, which will accommodate 55,000 spectators.

The closest centre-field wall in baseball is at the Red Sox’s Fenway Park, where the 17-foot high wall is 390 feet from home plate. It quickly juts out to 420 feet in right-centre field and is adjoined by the Green Monster to the left. The wall at London Stadium will be between 12 and 14 feet high between the power alleys.

The power alleys will be 375 feet and the foul lines 333 feet with an eight-foot fence running between the alleys and the foul poles. Dimensions will be finalized in September”.

During the A’s-Yankees games on Saturday, the A’s broadcasters Glenn Kuiper and Ray Fosse made reference to it when Aaron Judge flied out to centre field at Yankee Stadium with a shot that almost certainly would have been over the wall in London. The dimensions of a make-shift stadium will always be a compromise, but let’s hope it produces a good contest and isn’t too homer friendly (much as seeing homers hit in the stadium would be fun).

Yankees and Red Sox show what to expect

It was likely no mere coincidence that the Yankees and Red Sox were playing a series against each other in New York when the London Series was announced.

They showed how good those games could be by producing a dramatic series, with the Yankees taking the first two – the second involving a four-run rally in the eighth off Craig Kimbrel to make it 17 wins out of 18 for New York and to lift them to the top of the AL East – only for the Red Sox to salvage a 5-4 win from the series on Thursday thanks to a J.D. Martinez home run in the eighth inning after the Yankees had scored four in the seventh to level the game.

We know we’ll get two competitive games in London next year, but the one hesitation I had with the news of it being the Red Sox and Yankees coming across the pond was in respect of the length of the games.

One of the comments I hear from Brits who don’t follow baseball is the preconception that games take a long time and if ever there were two teams that could make a nine-game inning last four hours or more it’s the Red Sox and Yankees. Even if it’s an exciting game for the rest of us, the casual observers would likely see that as a negative.

The games from this recent series lasted 3.30, 3.42 and 3.21 (with a 55 minute rain delay).  The average game time for a nine-inning contest so far this season has been dead-on 3 hours and it’s probably safe to assume an extra half an hour on top of that when these two teams come together.

It’s part of the ‘every pitch matters’ intensity of the games that shows MLB at its best – several players commented on the atmosphere at the recent series being akin to a play-off game – and so long as it doesn’t stray too far into the four-hour territory, few people will have reason to grumble.

Playing the game so you can’t lose

Years ago (not sure now in these app-betting days) I knew a few football fans who would put a couple of quid on the opposition winning when going to an away game, on the basis that if their team didn’t get a point or three they could at least soften the blow by having a ‘free’ takeaway that night from their winnings.

The fantasy baseball equivalent is getting the benefit of a player performing well against your chosen real-life team, or the other way around.

We have four potential starting pitcher slots in the BGB Fantasy League on any given day and I had five of my pitchers scheduled to take the mound on Friday. I decided to put former A’s pitcher, current Yankees pitcher, Sonny Gray in my line-up (benching Lance Lynn, which was not a difficult decision considering how he’s pitched for the Twins so far this season) so that if he pitched well against my A’s – which seemed a given – then at least it would be a boost to my fantasy team.

Just as those football fans didn’t care about their stake going to the bookies when celebrating an away win, I brushed aside the fantasy match-up impact of Gray’s night ending with 5 earned runs conceded and another L to his name.

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Rookie Managers Making It Look Easy

Alex Cora and Mickey Callaway must have their feet up in their respective manager’s office thinking that this managing malarkey is easy.

Cora’s Red Sox sit astride the Major Leagues with a 12-2 record heading into Sunday’s games, with Callaway’s Mets close behind on 11-2 having had their nine-game winning streak brought to an end by Milwaukee yesterday.

Meanwhile, it turns out the Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler might not be completely clueless – as some declared after his first three games – as his team have won five games in a row to second behind the Mets on an 8-5 record.

The Nationals’ Dave Martinez (7-8) and Yankees’ Aaron Boone (7-7) are holding steady in the early going too, which just leaves veteran Ron Gardenhire among the new managers for 2018 for whom the start of the season is proving to be a struggle.

Gardenhire has been in the game long enough not to be too envious of those whippersnappers. There are only 30 MLB manager jobs at any one time and even being in charge of a rebuilding Detroit Tigers is a post to be proud of.

However, it is interesting that so many potentially plumb positions ended up in the hands of rookie managers.

Sport teams generally will change a manager when things have gone badly, with the manager holding responsibility for the team’s performance and being the easiest big part to change as opposed to making significant changes to the playing staff.

That often leads to an ‘opposite ends’ approach to the recruitment of managers, especially in football.  If a ‘back-to-basics’ experienced British manager gets the boot then a younger continental manager is just what’s needed.  If relegation looms with said younger continental manager’s brand of ‘tippy-tappy’ football not working in England, well of course you need a ‘back-to-basics’ experienced British manager to shake things up.

It’s not quite the same in baseball as the manager here has a different brief to work towards (accepting manager/head coach roles vary among football clubs too), yet you still see that approach being taken and, to varying degrees, that goes for the six new managers in MLB this year.

The situation in Washington was the most extreme. Ex-manager Dusty Baker has his critics from previous managerial stints, yet it’s difficult to see quite what he did in his two years at the helm with the Nationals to deserve to be pushed aside over the off-season rather than to continue with the team. They won 95 and 97 games in 2016 and 2017 and whilst consecutive 3-2 Division Series exits were bitterly disappointing when expectations of a World Series were so high, in the cold light of day there wasn’t much about those series defeats that you could pin on Baker.

His departure was a classic case of the team wanting to change something to get over the Division Series hump and Baker being the easiest option.  They changed from a 68 year-old with 22 MLB managerial seasons of experience to Dave Martinez, a 53 year-old who is taking on his first MLB managerial job after serving an apprenticeship under Joe Maddon at the Rays and Cubs.

The changes in Boston and New York were more understandable.

The Red Sox won 93 games and the AL East before being knocked out of the play-offs by a formidable Houston Astros team, so it was hardly a disaster on the field last year. However, it never seemed like a happy camp under John Farrell and so bringing his five-year reign to a close and moving on to the dynamic young Alex Cora looked like a shake-up move at somewhere that needed a shake-up.

The same could be said for the Mets, although in their case the 2017 season undoubtedly was a disaster.  Terry Collins had outstayed his welcome so bringing him back for 2018 was never going to work. Mickey Callaway’s glowing reputation from his five years as pitching coach under Terry Francona in Cleveland made him an obvious candidate to take over at a team whose fortunes are so heavily invested in the form and fitness of their starting pitching.

Aaron Boone was a left-field choice for the Yankees, yet fits into the ‘opposite ends’ idea by virtue of his excellent communication skills – shown to all in his work with ESPN – being cited as a crucial factor in his appointment. Joe Girardi had served a decade as the Yankees’ manager and many on the New York beat had started bemoaning his increased willingness to say very little in his managerial briefings long before it was announce he would not be returning for 2018.  It wasn’t simply the New York press wishing for someone more quote-worthy – although I’m sure that makes their lives much easier – but more that their experience was indicative of what they were picking up from players too: that Girardi was failing to inspire his team any more.

Those four situations are all about winning now, which is different to the roles that Gabe Kapler and Ron Gardenhire are taking on. In Philadelphia, they are firmly on the way up with a young team and so switched the 66 year-old Pete Mackanin for 42 year-old rookie manager Kapler.  In Detroit, they are at the start of a rebuild and decided that the experienced head of Gardenhire was what was needed at this point to move on from first-time manager Brad Ausmus, whose four-year tenure produced mixed results.

These are early days in the 2018 season and none of us can be certain how the six managerial appointments will pan out over the next few years, but it is likely we can take a good guess at the type of manager they will be replaced by when that time comes.

That is, someone the opposite of who they are replacing.

The Sunday Smasher

The Bangles sang that “It’s just another manic Monday”.

In MLB the song goes: “It’s just another Shohei Sunday”.

The Angels’ Japanese star is back on the mound today and after he went six perfect innings against the A’s last time out, he now gets to face the Kansas City Royals who have the worst record in MLB so far this season.

In other words, this has ‘potential no-hitter’ written all over it.  Or it will produce a big shock of the Royals being the line-up to knock Ohtani out of his stride. Either way, it will be worth watching.

First pitch from Kauffman Stadium is at 19.15 BST and the game is available to watch on MLB.TV.

Red Sox and Yankees heading to London in 2019?

As you likely would have already seen, Bloomberg and other US news outlets reported late on Monday that plans are close to being agreed for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees to play two games at the London Olympic Stadium next year.

The news isn’t really a surprise. Back in December 2016 it was being reported that the Red Sox and Yankees were two of teams that were most involved in plans to come across to London, with senior figures being quoted about this potentially leading to the two teams bringing their rivalry to the UK.

At the time it looked more likely that the two teams would come across separately – with London games on the provisional list for 2020 too – and that they would face a team such as the Tampa Bay Rays for whom losing a couple of home games would be less of a high profile issue.

Instead, it does now look like the Red Sox and Yankees will face each other after all if the logistics can be figured out and games are staged here next year.

That would be great news for us to have two of the marquee teams coming across and is a statement of intent from MLB that they are serious in getting as much publicity out of the games as possible. So from our perspective – other than a bit of disappointment if you support one of the other 28 teams – that’s exciting.

General reaction among U.S. Red Sox and Yankee fans has not been as kind to the news though and that’s a good reminder that for this to really work, it has to be something that works on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ten years ago the Premier League floated the idea of taking games to foreign shores by introducing a 39th game, knowing that the prospect of taking away one of a team’s existing 19 home games would have been strongly opposed. Even that concession was not enough to prevent a torrent of criticism that resulted in the plans being shelved.

Fans in the States have no great reason to care about expanding MLB into Europe, much as it makes such a difference to us. If it effects their enjoyment of watching their team then they’re not going to like the idea regardless of the wider benefits to baseball.

MLB teams play 162 games in a season so you could argue staging a couple in another country shouldn’t make much difference, but taking away two of the 19 contests between the Red Sox and Yankees is bound to create negativity among some of their fans. You’d imagine it would involve both teams giving up a home game (some reports are now claiming that actually they will both be Boston home games) and so fans at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium would have to accept they’ll get eight home games against their bitter rival rather than nine.

The bigger issue is how it could affect the teams when it comes to fitting the games into their schedule and any fall-out from this (or assumed fall-out) on their regular season campaigns.  A follow-up from NY Post’s Joel Sherman made the point that there are still plenty of logistical matters to be worked out.

The problem is that playing games at the end of Spring Training, as MLB has done with series in Japan and Australia, isn’t a great option thanks to the likelihood that British weather won’t be baseball weather at the end of March.

The obvious solution is to play a series at one side of the All-Star break in July as that would make it easier to build in the travel to the schedule; however that doesn’t appear to be an option that would fit in with other plans for the Olympic Stadium.  June is the provisional month on the cards and it’s going to be interesting to see how they make that work.

Thinking it through, the least amount of off-days needed probably would be two: a day-game in the States on Thursday, arrive into the UK on Friday morning for a day off, play games on Saturday and Sunday then a travel day on Monday to head back to play their next game on Tuesday night. Even that would be a tight turnaround with the time difference factored in, so you’d maybe need a doubleheader in there too (the Wednesday before so they arrive into the UK on Thursday, or the Wednesday after so they don’t have to play on the Tuesday night when they return).

For players who like to stick to their routines, and fans used to watching their team playing pretty much every day, that’s going to be a major talking point and one that MLB will need to be mindful of, communicating the plan on how to make it work and the benefits of the trip.

The New York Mets are the other team who have been most closely linked with playing in the UK, not least when London Mayor Sadiq Khan threw at the ceremonial first pitch at Citi Field last year. If the 2019 games do go ahead and work well, the smart money would be on Mets vs Nationals or Phillies for 2020 (I’d guess giving up homes games at newish publicly-funded ballparks would be an issue for the Braves and Marlins, although you can never count anything out with Miami).

We’re getting ahead of ourselves there though. It hasn’t officially been confirmed that games will be played in London in 2019, let alone 2020, but all signs are pointing to the Red Sox and Yankees taking to a diamond in London next June.

MLB 2017 Final Day: Everyone gets to play in October

It’s always a shame when we get to the final day of the MLB regular season and there is nothing significant still to play for.

Looking through the standings, the only potential thing to ‘win’ would be the first draft pick in next year’s amateur draft, which goes to the team with the worst win-loss record.

The San Francisco Giants (63-98) are one loss ‘better off’ than the Detroit Tigers (64-97) in the race to the bottom. If the Giants foolishly go and win today against the San Diego Padres and the Tigers lose then they’ll be matched on 64-98.

Normally with tie-breaker situations you look at the results of the games the two teams played against each other, but I’m not sure quite how that works here.

The Tigers won their inter-league series 2-1, which should mean they finish higher, although in the circumstances they might feel that the victory should result in them finishing last so they get the number one pick. Such is the weirdness that creating an incentive to finish last leads to.

Anyway, despite the Tigers’ protestations, I suspect that the Giants do have the worst record sewn-up already on that tie-breaker (I was going to look it up, but thought better of it), so we are where we are and can enjoy the final day as simply a day of baseball with not much riding on it.

Division winners

Looking at the almost-final standings, you can’t escape the conclusion that the teams most people thought would win the six divisions heading into the year have done so.

Neither the LA Dodgers and Washington Nationals had a strong challenger on paper and so it proved, whilst the Chicago Cubs also came through with a handy gap in the end despite the NL Central being harder work for them than we might have thought.

The Cleveland Indians blitzed the AL Central, in no small part thanks to their incredible 22-game winning streak, Boston kept the New York Yankees at bay in the East and the Houston Astros took all the fun out of the AL West (for the other four teams at least) by going 38-16 across April and May and never looking back. An 11-17 August counted for little, particularly when they responded with a 20-8 September.

Wild Cards

The above is partly the whole point of having the Wild Card round. We had predictable division winners this year because they were all blatantly going to be really good teams and were only going to be beaten if they had a disaster or two to give someone else a chance.

That’s not a bad thing in my book. Whilst surprises are always fun, ultimately you should want there to be impressive teams that rack up wins in the regular season and make their eventual clashes in the post-season all the more enthralling.

The Wild Card, especially the second Wild Card, adds something else to the play-off pot.

It creates the potential for other strong teams to get in, such as the Yankees this time around. Despite the negatives you can throw at the Wild Card play-in game from a fairness point of view, the AL East was a great example of one of the main positives.

There is a huge potential difference between winning the division and going straight through to the best-of-five Division Series, compared with flipping a coin in the lose-and-you’re-out Wild Card game. Potential is the key word there, as if you manage to win the Wild Card game your odds of winning it all aren’t all that much lower than the other Division Series competitors. However, the risk of your play-offs only lasting one game means that the division is always worth fighting for now, which wasn’t the case when there was only one Wild Card per league.

NL W(ild Card)

The second Wild Card means that if there are three strong teams in one division in a given year, they could all have a chance of making it to the post-season.

That’s happened this year in the NL West. The Colorado Rockies were a somewhat surprising third-placed finisher last year behind the Dodgers and Giants, yet their 75-87 record to get there – after losing 96 and 94 games in the previous two seasons – gave reason to be cautious about being too optimistic for their hopes in 2017.

In fact, it proved to be indicative of the potential that was there at Coors Field and they’ve fully earned their first play-off appearance since 2009.

The Rockies’ progress in 2017 is nothing compared to that of the team that will be hosting them for the NL Wild Card on Wednesday. 2016 was a disaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks after they made big moves in the off-season – spending $206m on Zack Greinke and a king’s ransom in a trade for Shelby Miller – only to lose 93 games. Various people lost their jobs as a result, but there was still some talent at the club and the potential for a quick return to respectability.

They far exceeded that and enter the final day of the regular season with the joint-sixth highest win total across the Majors with 92. No one can say the D-Backs haven’t earned their play-off appearance.

Twins and the AL Wild Card game

As for the Minnesota Twins, well, some people aren’t being quite so generous in their praise of the second AL Wild Card winners.

They’ve earned their spot because they’ve got the fifth-best record in the American League and five teams qualify for the play-offs from each league. However, they enter the final day with a win-loss record of 84-77.

In football people often say the league table doesn’t lie at the end of a season; in other words, where you end up is generally a good reflection on how good your team was.

MLB takes that further by playing a 162-game regular season. Randomness can still come into, but by and large that’s more than enough time for the cream to rise to the top, the chaff to be separated from the wheat, and the middling middlers to settle in the middle.

It is fair to say that Minnesota are more middly than creamy.

That doesn’t matter in the least for the Minnesota Twins, who can smile away any jibes by knowing there are 20 other teams that would love to be in their position. They’ve made it to the play-offs a year after losing 103 games. They’ve won 25 more games than they did last year and can make it 26 if they win on Sunday. That’s a real achievement for Paul Molitor and his team.

And as for the AL Wild Card game

The problem some have with the Wild Card game in a situation like this is that a team that has earned a significantly better record over 162 games than their opponent can be knocked out by losing one game.

There’s no escaping that this isn’t completely fair, but there’s one important thing to note about it this year.

The New York Yankees have won more World Series than any other team and broken more hearts than anyone else along the way too. The ‘Evil Empire’ moniker isn’t being thrown around quite so much now as it had been the previous 10-15 years, but there’s a reason why it became a thing in the first place. Yankees fans, like fans of any all-conquering team, understand that people love to hate them.

So if it does happen and the Twins do dump the Yankees out on Tuesday night – and it certainly could – then whilst the strict analysts may bemoan it, the rest of us can have a good chuckle about it.


MLB Sleepyhead Summary: Twins = Wins

The MLB Sleepyhead Summary is a new regular column that helps British baseball fans keep up to speed with MLB despite the time difference!

The Minnesota Twins started last season by losing their first nine games.

An 0-9 start isn’t much fun for anyone, but when you have the word ‘wins’ in your nickname, you’re going to hear about it even more than most.

They briefly responded to the jeers by reeling off four consecutive wins, but that’s where the comeback ended. 2016 was a miserable year for Minnesota as the team ended up with a 59-103 record, the worst in all of MLB.

Unsurprisingly, expectations were not exactly high for the Twins to mount a play-off challenge in 2017, yet they continue to confound the naysayers as we head into the last two weeks of August.

The Twins have won 11 of their last 13 games, including a sweep over the Arizona Diamondbacks this past weekend (Sunday’s win driven by a nine-run first inning), to draw themselves level with the LA Angels for the second Wild Card spot. Baseball Prospectus currently gives them a 33.4% chance of making it to the post-season, which would be a fantastic story if they can pull it off.

Minnesota have a chance to earn some wins this week at the expense of the AL’s worst team. They have a five-game series away to the Chicago White Sox, beginning with a double-header on Monday, and if they can build on their 7-4 season record so far this season against the Sox they could start to win over even more of the non-believers.

More AL Wild Card shuffling

The Angels beat Wild Card rivals the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 in this weekend’s series, with the Orioles’ sole win being powered by the outstanding individual player performance of the weekend. Manny Machado launched three home-runs, the final one being the small matter of a walk-off grand slam, in a thrilling 9-7 victory.

The Angels move on to a four-game series against rivals the Texas Rangers, whilst the Orioles look to gain back some ground in a home series against the Oakland A’s.

Elsewhere in the AL, the Boston Red Sox – fresh off a series victory against the New York Yankees – have a potential play-off preview four-game series against the Cleveland Indians, whilst those Yankees have a three-game set against Detroit.

Seattle and Kansas City will both look to gain ground in the AL Wild Card race by picking up some wins against National League opposition. The Mariners continue their road trip with a visit to Atlanta, whilst the Royals are hosting the Rockies for three games starting on Tuesday.

NL Central race may also become part of the NL Wild Card race

In the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates have the tough task of facing the LA Dodgers four times across Monday to Thursday. The Buccos are now six games back in the NL Central having recovered from a six-game losing streak to win the final two games of their series against the St Louis Cardinals. They need to keep on picking up some wins and that’s not something any team has found easy against the Dodgers this season.

The Cubs and Reds split a four-game series last week and meet up again, this time in Cincinnati, for another three games from Tuesday to Thursday. Meanwhile the Cardinals are hosting the Padres for three games at Busch Stadium and the Milwaukee Brewers are in San Francisco taking on the Giants.

The Brew Crew won two of three at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies this past weekend and, coupled with the Twins’ sweep of the D-Backs, the play-off picture in the National League is potentially changing. Whereas even just a week ago it looked like the NL Central teams were battling for one play-off spot, Arizona now only has a 2.5 game gap over Milwaukee for the second Wild Card, with the Rockies one game further ahead.

This means that although the Cubs earned back a small gap at the top of the NL Central thanks to their weekend sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Brewers, Cardinals and possibly even the Pirates might have a second chance at making the post-season aside from clawing back the gap at the top of their own division.

MLB Sleepyhead Summary: Yankees sweep whilst the Rangers keep winning

The MLB Sleepyhead Summary is a new regular column that helps British baseball fans keep up to speed with MLB despite the time difference!

Yankees sweeping up New York

The New York Yankees have had to sit back and take the jibes over the past few seasons as the New York Mets got to a World Series in 2015 and became the team everyone was talking about in the Big Apple.

That must have made this week’s Subway Series sweep all the more satisfying.

The Yankees won all four games against the Mets in one of the weird inter-league series that has two games at one venue, followed straight away by two games at the other. It makes more sense in a single-city match-up than it does when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros are paired together, as happened this week, at least.

That sets up this weekend’s series against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium perfectly, with the Red Sox leading the AL West by four games after defeating the St Louis Cardinals twice (victories including a triple-play and a three-run rally in the ninth inning).

You would be forgiven for assuming that the third game will be the ESPN Sunday Night contest, but they will be showing the Cardinals-Pirates game from the Williamsport Little League site, so instead we can catch the game at 18.30 BST. Sonny Gray, who got his first win in pinstripes on Tuesday, and Doug Fister are the probable pitchers for Sunday.

Rangers making a run for it

The team that’s really on the march right now is the Texas Rangers.

They’ve won 11 of their last 13 games, including a three-game sweep over Detroit and defeating the Chicago White Sox on Thursday in the first game of a four-game series.  The White Sox have lost their last five games and have the worst win-loss record in the American League, 45-73, so it’s a prime opportunity for the Rangers to continue their climb towards an American League Wild Card.

Whilst the Yankees have a 3.5 game gap for the top Wild Card, the rest of the group is very closely bunched, with the LA Angels currently holding the second spot and then seven teams sitting within three games of the Halos.

WC – NY Yankees (65-55) 3.5
WC – LA Angels (62-59) –
Kansas City (61-59) 0.5 Games Back
Minnesota (60-59) 1
Seattle (61-61) 1.5
Texas (60-60) 1.5
Tampa Bay (60-63) 3
Baltimore (59-62) 3
Toronto (59-62) 3

To illustrate how close it is, the Baltimore Orioles currently have five teams ahead of them before they get to the Angels, but if they can sweep their three-game series against LA this weekend they’ll have the same record as the team currently holding the second Wild Card. The Mariners have a chance to climb as they take on the out-of-form Tampa Bay Rays this weekend, whilst Kansas City and taking on the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians.

The Toronto Blue Jays are still in with a shout of an AL Wild Card despite their terrible start to the season and they go into their weekend inter-league series against the Chicago Cubs on the back of winning three of four against the Rays.

NL Central remains close

As for the Cubs, they split a four-game series with the Cincinnati Reds this week, losing the final game 13-10 despite slugging six home runs. Jon Lester had a day to forget, giving up nine runs in 1.2 innings before leaving the game with an injury. All three games against the Blue Jays at Wrigley Field are 19.20 BST starts. Friday’s game should see Jake Arrieta and J.A. Happ on the mound.

The Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates last night in the first of an important four-game series. The Pirates have now lost five in a row, including both games of a short two-game series against Milwaukee on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Cubs now hold a one-game lead over the Cardinals, and a 1.5 game lead over Milwaukee in the NL Central. The Pirates have slipped to 5.5 games back and whilst there’s still plenty of games left to play, getting some wins back against the Cardinals this weekend will be crucial to avoid the gap increasing.

Milwaukee have bounced back from an indffierent spell coming out of the All-Star break. They’ve won four in a row heading into this weekend’s series in Colorado against the Rockies.

April highlights from MLB

One month into the MLB regular season and there have already been enough stories to last a year.

Here are some of the key things that have happened.

Early struggles

Any team or player can go through a tricky month, so we should be wary of taking a bad April to always be a sign of things to come. It’s not easy to be pragmatic like that when it’s your team in the stir, though.

The Toronto Blue Jays have been a constant source of worry for their fans during the first month. They’ve picked up a bit of late so they no longer hold the worst record in the Majors, but having the second-worst record (8-17) isn’t much of a consolation.

They’ve been bedevilled by injuries – a common theme as we’ll see – and the return of Jose Bautista, who looked likely to leave as a free agent over the off-season, has not started well.  Bautista has always been the sort of player loved by his own fans but hated by opponents, and it’s fair to say his struggles have not evoked much sympathy. He has the sort of attitude that would use that negativity to spur him on; however at 36 years old it’s possible this may not just be a one-month blip and instead a sign of his decline as a force at the plate.

The team that does hold the worst record is the Kansas City Royals. The tragic death of pitcher Yordano Ventura continues to cast a shadow over the club, as does the looming free agent status of a number of core players (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain being the main ones).  It looks like this is the end of the line for this World Series-winning group and they may be set for a rebuild, which is a shame for their fans but the memories of their 2015 triumph will sustain them for years to come.

In the National League, it’s the Royals’ World Series opponents from 2014 and 2015 that are getting most of the flak.

The San Francisco Giants have started slowly and whilst there’s enough talent on their roster to get back into the Wild Card race, losing Madison ‘I’m just a crashing dirt bike numpty’ Bumgarner for a couple of months at least is a significant blow. Much as it would be just like the Giants, and especially just like MadBum, to defy the odds and stage a glorious comeback, they’re making things very difficult for themselves.

The same could be said for the New York Mets. Injuries, injuries, injuries is the story here and what’s most concerning is the sense that this isn’t just down to bad luck. Yoenis Cespedes and Noah Syndergaard are the latest two stars to reportedly pull rank and play through fitness concerns, only to make matters worse. You don’t like to criticise players who are desperate to be on the field, but it does raise questions as to who is in charge and looking at the bigger picture of a long season.

10-day DL

The Mets’ management of injury concerns comes at a time when we’re seeing a significant change in the approach of teams towards injuries.

One of the many changes brought about by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed over the off-season was the introduction of a 10-day Disabled List, down from the 15-days that it had been for many years.

The disabled list is something that can confuse Brits new to MLB. The starting point is simply that the players on the DL are injured; however formally placing them on the DL is part of managing the strict limit of 25 players that a team has at their disposal on a given day.

An MLB team’s 25-man roster is part of their overall 40-man roster of players, and this is then part of an organisation-wide group of players throughout their 5 or 6 Minor League teams (‘feeder’ teams, in a sense).

The Disabled List is there so that teams can’t simply game the system by having a large squad of players to mix-and-match from every single day. If a player on your active 25-man roster picks up an injury, you either have to play short-handed while he recovers or place him on the DL so that you can put someone in his place.

With a 15-day DL, teams were more inclined to keep hold of a player for minor niggles rather than have to be without them for a couple of weeks. The Players Association (union) were keen to change this as it tended to mean players were back out on the field earlier than they probably should have been.

The idea of the 10-day DL is that the shorter time period will make teams err on the side of caution and give the player time to recuperate fully. The first month of the new rule has shown this to be the case. More players are going on the DL and this has a knock-effect in ‘real’ baseball (opportunities for other players to get some Major League service time) and in ‘fantasy’ baseball.

Doing well despite the injuries

The Washington Nationals were many people’s favourites for the NL East division this season and they’ve shown why during April by amassing an MLB-leading 17-8 record. That positivity comes with the recent blow of losing off-season recruit Adam Eaton to a knee injury that looks set to see him miss the rest of the season.

The actual impact of his absence on the Nationals’ play-off hopes is lessened by how strong their roster is, although losing a good player like Eaton is always going to be a blow.

You could say the same about the Boston Red Sox and David Price. They’re not pulling up any trees so far, but a 13-11 April keeps them nicely in the running and Chris Sale has been outstanding.

Price is continuing his rehabilitation from an arm injury that many feared could see him miss the entire season and whilst there’s still no firm timetable for his return, currently it looks like he may be back on a Major League mound at the end of May or beginning of June. There’s no need to rush him, despite the competitive nature of the AL East, and if he can be up to speed for the second-half of the season then they’ll have an intimidating front three to their rotation with reigning Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello an impressive ‘number three’ to call on.

The ‘nice’ start for Boston comes with the ominous signs of a young New York Yankees team that doesn’t see 2017 as a rebuilding year. They’ve looked really impressive in April, Aaron Judge in particularly showing off his incredible power at the plate, all whilst being without Didi Gregorious for most of the month and their best young player, Gary Sanchez, heading to the DL. He could be back in the lineup by the end of this week so this could be much more than just a good start.

If they can keep it up, the Yankees will be in a very different position at this year’s trade deadline than they were in 2016. Whilst last year they were shopping veteran players for prospects, this year they may use some of their prospect depth to add a starting pitcher (Jose Quintana would be the obvious one) to make a play-off push.

The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks also shouldn’t be overlooked as they’re the NL West front-runners in the early going.

The Rockies have started well despite their main off-season recruit, Ian Desmond, only just making his debut yesterday due to recovering from a fractured left hand. As for the D-Backs, they’ve suffered the blow of losing pitcher Shelby Miller to an elbow injury that will almost certainly require Tommy John surgery and over a year on the sidelines. It’s a cruel blow considering he’d shown positive signs in his first couple of starts after a miserable 2016 and will add to the case of Arizona signing him being one of the worst trade decisions by a team in recent history.

Other players standing out

Marcus Thames has been the big story of April, swatting 11 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in his first month back in the Big Leagues after a three-year stint in the Korean league. Sadly his power surge has prompted the inevitable sniping from some that drugs may be involved, but Thames came back with a great response (“If people keep thinking I’m on stuff, I’ll be here every day. I have a lot of blood and urine”).

The Houston Astros’ Dallas Keuchel beat the Oakland A’s on Sunday to make it a perfect 5-0 record from his first five starts. Painful as it was to watch for this A’s fan in some ways, you have to appreciate a pitcher like Keuchel who doesn’t rely on 95+ mph fastballs to mow down opposing line-ups.

Ervin Santana will look to equal Keuchel’s record 5-0 record on Tuesday night starting against, of course, the A’s (Sonny Gray will make his much-anticipated first start of the season for Oakland in that game too). Santana’s strong start for the Minnesota Twins has been a great surprise for his team and, as is the way, puts him in the shop window for a potential trade later in the season.

Finally, Chris Coghlan deserves a mention for what he did against Yadi Molina and the St Louis Cardinals. Dives in football are rightly condemned; in baseball, they can be a thing of wonder.

Is the Price right?

Boston Red Sox fans were left reeling during the week when news broke that pitcher David Price was suffering from pain in his elbow and forearm and was being examined by surgeons. Invariably such news leads to a diagnosis of an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery and a year on the sidelines.

In this case, the news turned out to be more positive. Price will rest the elbow for at least 10 days and it seems that he may be able to avoid surgery, although you can expect the Red Sox to take a very cautious approach and that he is more likely than not to miss some time at the start of the regular season.

This comes just one year into Price’s seven-year, $217m contract with Boston. One of the factors behind the huge investment on the Red Sox’s part is that Price has been so durable in his Major League career. Between 2010 and 2016 he has averaged 32 starts and 218 innings per year.

However, like most other stats, you can interpret that in a positive or negative way. Does this consistency make him a strong bet to continue to pitch 200 innings per year, or has the workload taken a toll and increased the risk of him breaking down in future?

The truth is, nobody really knows in any individual case. The sensible approach is to bet on players that have demonstrated a proven ability to stay on the field and hope that continues, rather than expecting a player who has struggled with injuries in the past to suddenly shake-off their sick note status.

Although Red Sox don’t normally like looking towards the New York Yankees, they do provide a recent example that offers cause for optimism.

Masahiro Tanaka cost the Yankees $175m in 2014 (a seven-year contract and a $20m fee to his Japanese club Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) and he landed on the Disabled List just four months into his Major League career with a partially torn UCL in his pitching elbow. This is the exact injury that normally requires surgery and a lengthy lay-off, but Tanaka went down the rest and rehab route (alongside an injection in the elbow) and has made 55 starts over the past two seasons whilst slightly altering his pitching arsenal to reduce strain on the elbow.

So although the news on Price may feel like it’s just delaying the inevitable surgery, it’s quite possible they’ll still get 170 innings from him (plus a play-off start or two) in 2017 after all. Few Red Sox fans thought that would be the case last Thursday.

Contracts under consideration

More widely, both players demonstrate the calculated gamble teams have to take if they want to commit to long-term deals to sign elite pitchers.

An interesting article was published on Vice Sports last June about insurance in MLB. It includes a quote from the Red Sox’s team chairman Tom Werner that they “have insurance on some players, not all players”. That was in reference to their decision not to insure Pablo Sandoval’s five-year, $95 million contract. I’ve not uncovered any definitive info on whether Price’s contract is covered, and that they would essentially get money back if Price missed significant time. It’s the type of large contract a team would want to get insurance on, but clearly the cost of doing so would be significant.

Jon Heyman’s recent article on FanRag looks at a potential future contract for Bryce Harper (he’s due to become a free agent at the end of the 2018 season, and due to get an absolute boatload of money) and includes the following comment on the potential 2018 free agent class:

“It’s no wonder some teams are lining up for 2018, with Harper and Orioles star Manny Machado at the top of a brilliant free-agent class that also includes Zach Britton, Matt Harvey and many other stars.”

I can’t be the only person who raised an eyebrow at the inclusion of Matt Harvey’s name in that group. There’s no question he has star-level talent, but there’s also no question that he has a troubling injury record, missing all of 2014 due to Tommy John elbow surgery and then the second half of 2016 after having surgery to correct his thoracic outlet syndrome (surgery that involves having a rib removed).

Harvey is making his first Spring Training start today (Sunday) and MLB.TV subscribers can watch that from 18.05 GMT. The buzz around every Harvey start should make every baseball fan (aside from those of the team he is facing on a given day) want him to return to form and fitness. If he can do that over the next two seasons then he will indeed be in line for a big pay-day; however, that’s a very big ‘if’ based on recent history.

Even if there isn’t a recent major injury scare to consider, taking the plunge on a large free agent contract for a pitcher is a risky business.

One of the few signs of trouble that Chicago Cubs reporters have been able to latch onto so far this spring is starting pitcher Jake Arrieta’s impending free agency at the end of this season. The above-referenced Heyman article notes that the Cubs don’t seem minded to extend an offer beyond a four-year contract and that Arrieta likely will be off.

The smart Cubs Front Office probably thinks there are better ways to spend the $200m Arrieta is seeking than on a pitcher who turns 31 tomorrow, although the first-year return on Jason Heyward’s eight-year, $184m contract shows that even multi-year contracts for position players are a risky bet.

The one thing that is certain is that any player can suffer a serious injury, so it’s hard to criticise a player for seeking the biggest guaranteed pay-day whilst they can.

Who’s gone where?

The first weekend of February is a good time to take stock of the baseball off-season and to get your head around the question of ‘who’s gone where?’.

That led me to go through the essential MLB section on RosterResources.com and to chart out the main additions and losses for every team so far this off-season.

I started with two transactions in mind as the most important and the exercise confirmed that to be the case.

The Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians were two of the best teams in the Majors in 2017 and they’ve each made a notable signing this winter to reinforce their status as favourites to battle for the American League World Series spot.

Chris Sale’s trade to Boston from the Chicago White Sox adds an ace to a rotation that already boasted David Price and reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello. So long as Sale doesn’t get frustrated and go all Edward Scissorhands on us again, he should be a genuine difference-maker in the AL East.

As for Cleveland, they’ve responded to narrowly losing in the World Series by making an uncharacteristic splash in the free agent market. Few would have put much money on the Indians winning the bidding war for Edwin Encarnacion, but the former Blue Jay is indeed a new member of the Tribe and one of several reasons to be confident that their successful 2016 season will not prove to be a one-off.

What the winter hasn’t provided though is a clear case of a team making a big leap forward into the play-off reckoning.

That’s not a complete surprise as the 2016/17 free agent class was one of the weakest of recent years. Additionally, three of the most appealing free agents had come to the end of their contracts with the Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, Rich Hill and Justin Turner. The Dodgers used their financial clout to keep the trio out of the clutches of any potential rivals and made a small quality free agent pool even smaller.

We should also not forget that the team that made the biggest noise over the previous winter was the Arizona Diamondbacks. To say that their plan – if we can call it that – didn’t work out would be a huge understatement. Winning the off-season doesn’t offer guarantees that you’ll win in the regular season.

However, there have been some interesting transactions completed and here are three teams worth keeping an eye on.

The Houston Astros were a relative disappointment in 2016 after their play-off appearance the previous year. They completed most of their off-season work early, making it easy to forget that they have made some decent additions. Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann have joined a batting lineup that was already one of the better units in the Majors. Whether their pitching staff will take a step forward could be the key question for their 2017 prospects.

The Seattle Mariners’ General Manager Jerry Dipoto should simply referred to as ‘The Trader’. He is always keen on making a deal and has completed plenty of trades this off-season, with the most notable additoins being Drew Smyly, Yovani Gallardo, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger and Jarrod Dyson whilst Taijuan Walker, Nathan Karns and Seth Smith head the list of players that have been moved on. They finished second in the AL West in 2016, albeit a fair way behind division-winners Texas, and we’ll see if the cumulative effect of the trades have made them better or not.

Finally, the Colorado Rockies managed a surprising third-placed finish in the NL West last year, although their 75-87 win-loss record showed that was more down to Arizona and San Diego’s poor play than their own positive performance. Undeterred, they decided to up the ante by signing Ian Desmond to a five-year, $70m contract and then announced that the intention is for him to play at first base. It ranks as one of the more baffling decisions made in recent years, worth keeping an eye on for the ‘so crazy it just might work’ potential it has.