Season Wrap

 

My last baseball piece was a naïve, premature and overly optimistic one about the then-brimming fortunes of the Blue Jays, written as they stood in the sunshine of first place, about fourteen games above .500. They promptly stumbled, then really fell apart in August and, scraping egg off my face, I resolved never to write about baseball again. I felt like a know-nothing hack and a jinx to boot (not that I’m superstitious about baseball or anything, no…).You knew that this self-imposed embargo wasn’t going to last forever though and, seeing as the baseball season just ended and that I’m far too confused about jazz at the moment to write anything intelligible about it, I thought I’d chime in with a few thoughts on the grand old game and the season just past.

Adieu, Konerko. Almost without mention and utterly lost amid the season-long, overblown spectacle that was Derek Jeter’s farewell tour – the tribute gifts from all MLB teams, the epic, almost cinematic “RE2PECT” commercials from the likes of Nike and Gatorade, the endless fan signs and feel-good moments and so on, ad nauseam – was the fact that another important and worthy ballplayer played his last game on Sunday – Paul Konerko.

Even given that the countdown to Jeter’s last game reached a fever pitch and hogged all of the spotlight, the media coverage of Konerko’s retirement still was shamefully minimal – I only happened to catch a small clip of his final moment by accident while watching the Jays’ final game. It was like an afterthought, as if to say “Oh, and by the way, somebody named Paul Konerko is also retiring”, as if he were nothing at all.

Now, I know that Chicago is not New York and the White Sox ain’t the Yankees (and never will be) and that Jeter has deservedly attained hallowed status and all, but still, Konerko’s career was not nothing, far from it. The man hit 439 home runs for God’s sake. And he wasn’t just a bopper, his career batting average was .279, pretty damn respectable for a power-hitter, plus he walked his fair share (.352 OBP)  and drove in a ton of runs (1,412 in 16 full seasons, with six of 100-plus.) And while as a non-Yankee he couldn’t match Jeter’s storied post-season profile, he was at the centre of the 2005 White Sox team that broke the painful 88-year championship drought of that franchise when they swept the Astros in the World Series. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

The imbalance of it all enraged me, it just isn’t right that one should receive so much  love and another so little. So, this is the way it works…..A player can be very, very good for a long time – eighteen seasons in Konerko’s case, sixteen of them with the White Sox – but if he happens to toil outside the spotlight of Yankeeville, he gets bupkus, the really short end of the stick. (It must be said that this is pretty much how Konerko – a notably quiet and modest player – wanted it. He didn’t want a big fuss made, but he still deserved better than this.)

It’s not that I have anything against Jeter, even though I’m not a Yankees fan. In fact, Jeter was part of the cadre of great homegrown Yankees under Joe Torre’s leadership that made me at least admire the team from 1996-2004. There’s no question that he was a great ballplayer, had a stellar career and always conducted himself with the utmost class and respect for the game, it was a pleasure to watch him. But if he’s going to get the accolades, he has to take his lumps too, and I think he overstayed his welcome, or at least his usefulness. He had his last great season with the bat in 2012 and probably should have hung them up after getting injured that season in the playoffs, which the Yankees exited from in ignominious fashion. Apart from aging and injuries, at least part of the reason the Yankees haven’t won anything since 2009 despite a Daddy Warbucks payroll is that they continued to play Jeter everyday at shortstop, when he quite clearly lacked the range and arm to do so at a major-league level. And come on, the level of hoopla surrounding his retirement was ridiculously overdone, as if he were in the class of Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, Ted Williams or Stan Musial, which he simply wasn’t. He was however a Yankee, and in the end, that made all the difference.

As to Konerko, he wasn’t a great player – not quite, but close – he was very, very good for a long time. He was basically a poor man’s Jim Thome, a Thome with fewer home runs and about half the walks, but then again half the strikeouts and with greater defensive value. He could justifiably make it to the Hall of Fame and may, but he’ll probably have to wait a while – it’s a crowded field and the period of eligibility was just shortened. 300 home runs used to be the starting point of HOF consideration for power hitters and 400 meant a player was a lock, but this is no longer true, ironically because of steroids. I say ironically because, while HOF voters seemingly won’t vote for proven PED-cheaters, they have tacitly accepted the needle-inflated home run standards those same cheaters set. 400-plus homers is still a very high number for a clean player – it’s Duke Snider, Carl Yastrzemski, Stan Musial territory – and Konerko was very clearly a clean player. He should probably go in, but may not, it’s about 50-50. He was a really good player though and in his quiet, Second-City way, just as classy and as good for baseball as Mr. Jeter. I just thought I’d give him his due, seeing as few outside of Chicago have done so.

Whither the Blue Jays? At least locally among their fans, there was widespread disappointment over the Blue Jays’ failure to make the post-season and I confess to having felt some myself. Stepping back from it all for a moment though, this is mostly an illusion, made more painful by the fact that with the Royals winning one of the wild cards the Jays now own the longest post-season drought in all of baseball at 21 years and counting. But if you go back to the beginning of the season, most experts quite reasonably picked the Jays to finish last in the A.L. East, whereas they finished within an eyelash of second place. True, their final record of 83-79 is nothing to write home about, but is 10 more wins than they managed the year before and represents a big step in the right direction.

Two things made even this considerable improvement seem like a failure – they raised everybody’s expectations and hopes with their red-hot May and early-June – and for once the AL East seemed up for grabs, with the Red Sox, Rays, Yankees all under-achieving, and the Orioles not really catching fire till mid-July or so. These factors, coupled with their awful August did make it all hard to swallow, but let’s not kid ourselves. The Jays are about exactly where they should be and simply didn’t have the horses the Orioles did. Even with Matt Wieters hurt, the Orioles had the best everyday line-up in the league from the outset – laden with power, good defense and depth, a strong veteran bench – plus their bullpen is excellent and their starting pitching came together better than expected. Even without the injuries to key players like Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie – and injuries are no excuse, others had far worse to deal with – I don’t see how the Jays could have held the Orioles off and won the division. If they’d managed to play .500 ball or a little better from their high-water mark of June 6, they might have won a wild-card spot – maybe – but their lack of depth and some sub-par play (hello bullpen, hello Jose Reyes) sunk them as they fell apart in August.

A 10-game improvement is nothing to sneeze at and there are reasons to be optimistic they can improve on this – here I go again. From the outset, their starting pitching was expected to be a weakness, but this didn’t turn out to be true, once they sorted out the three and five spots. True, they don’t have an ace or a starter that scares anybody – yet – but there were definite signs of consistency and reliability in the rotation. Each of the starters won in double-digits and between August and September, they had a stretch of 26 straight games with at least six innings per start, by a comfortable margin the longest such string for some time.

There is good news beyond this with the starting pitching though. Buehrle and Dickey gave the Jays exactly what was expected of them, and A.J. Happ pitched very well in the second half, if a little unluckily. When your number-five starter wins 11 games and only costs you $5 million, it’s relatively good news. And the cupboard of young arms is not quite as bare as expected after the Jays made all the big deals two years ago. Drew Hutchison was maddeningly inconsistent at times, but he’s still only 23 and made huge strides after an injury-lost season. When we was bad he was awful, but when he was good, he was lights out. And Marcus Stroman really showed something in establishing himself and should only get better. Then there’s Aaron Sanchez, who will pitch for the Jays in some capacity next year and is the real deal, barring injury of course. The bullpen took a big step backwards and will need work, but the good news in terms of the big picture is that it’s much easier to build a good bullpen quickly than it is a rotation. If they elect to hang on to everybody, the Jays are six-deep in reliable starters (counting Sanchez) and this doesn’t include viable-looking prospects Daniel Norris and Kendall Graveman.

This has led many to suggest that they trade a staring pitcher – likely Buehrle or Happ – to acquire some bullpen or hitting help. I’m not quite sure I agree. The logic on Buehrle is that his contract expires after next year and calls for a 2015 salary of $19 million, awfully steep for a mid-rotation guy who might win 15 games at the most. The reasoning for dumping Happ is that he’s a number-five guy and Sanchez figures to be better and much cheaper. But, what if Sanchez doesn’t come through or gets hurt – ditto Hutchinson and Stroman – or they decide to use Sanchez or somebody else in the bullpen. What then? I think you can never have enough starting pitching and given that Buehrle is an absolute guarantee of 200 innings and 12-15 wins, they should pay the money and take the stability he offers. And at a price tag of about $7 million, Happ isn’t that far off from Buehrle, so they should keep him too if only for depth. They’re going to shed some payroll because Santos, Morrow (good riddance to both), Janssen, Delabar and probably McGowan are gone, as is Colby Rasmus. They should keep their starting depth intact and use money rather than player-chips to build a bullpen and get a couple of everyday players who can hit, preferably one of whom can either play second or third base. This is easier said than done of course.

The Jays have some holes to fill for sure, but they still have some strengths and a basis on which to move forward. They really should make signing Melky Cabrera a priority, though this will be difficult as he’ll see some serious offers after the season he had. They still have the best one-two power punch in the game in Bautista and Encarnacion. Injuries to some key hitters caused their offense to sputter just when they needed it most, but the Jays still finished fifth in all of baseball in runs scored, the only offensive stat that really matters. They need to figure out the Brett Lawrie/second base/third base riddle and who’s going to play centerfield (and left, if they don’t have Cabrera.) They also need to be better against left-handers, need to find a right-handed version of Adam Lind. At least they have some chips to move and some salary freed up to spend. I just don’t see their season as that much of a failure, maddening though it was. 21 years is a long time though and the clock of fan interest and relevance is ticking fast.

Mr. Buehrle. Returning to Mark Buehrle, there has never been a pitcher remotely like him in baseball history, he’s unique. Yes, there have been soft-throwing lefties and junkballers galore, but none achieving his consistency and durability with such a below-average fastball, topping out at about 85 m.p.h. As is now well known, Buehrle became the first pitcher in baseball history to have fourteen straight seasons of at least 200 innings, with 61 or fewer walks (prior to this season, he was tied in this admittedly specific category with none other than Cy Young.) And the fourteen straight 200-inning seasons puts him in extremely heady company, behind only Greg Maddux, Gaylord Perry (15 each) and Warren Spahn (17), possibly the best left-handed pitcher ever. Even more incredible is that he has made 461 consecutive starts, without spending any time on the DL in his entire career. He now sits at 199 career wins.

Given that his fastball is so slow, that he surrenders over a hit per inning and is quite vulnerable to the home run, the $64 million question is: how in the world has he managed to do all this? Beyond the fact that he’s really smart in a baseball sense and his head is always way into the game, it’s mostly three things. He walks almost nobody, which is huge. He’s one of the greatest fielding pitchers of all time, so good and alert in fact that he functions as a kind of fifth infielder. (He also works extremely quickly, which I think has helped his durability and avoidance of injury, plus it makes the defenses behind him play better, also a big help, considering how much he pitches to contact.) And lastly, he completely shuts down the running game, with one of the deadliest pick-off moves in the game. These may not seem like much, but combined they give him a big enough edge to win consistently, even if not at a Cy Young level.

Considering his iron-man durability against the maddening epidemic of serious pitching injuries these days, MLB should really sit down with Mr. Buehrle for a serious chat, maybe take some X-rays and scans along with some DNA samples to see if they can’t spread some more of him around. Baseball could use a lot more pitchers like Buehrle but unfortunately, there’s only ever been the one. He’ll be 36 next year, but given his generally relaxed attitude and the way he throws, I wouldn’t put it past him to reach 200 innings a couple of more times and maybe get to 240 wins. This still won’t be enough to put him in the Hall of Fame, because his other numbers aren’t good enough; if it was just a matter of endurance and reliability, he’d be a lock. It’s too bad, for his uniqueness Buehrle should definitely be in the Hall of Something-or-Other.

The Second Wild Card. I’ll admit that as a snobby baseball purist, I did some grumbling when Bud Selig created the second wild card, something along the lines that baseball was trying to be too much like the NFL (I felt the same way about instant-replay umpire challenges and still do.) However, I’d have to say it’s been a success, in fact most of the late pennant-race suspense and drama the last three seasons has resulted from the new format. And any remaining misgivings were kicked forever under the carpet by last night’s thrilling, epic wild card playoff game between the Royals and the A’s, won by the Royals 9-8 in twelve gut-wrenching, see-saw innings. There were several lead changes, two late comebacks by K.C. to tie the game, the last of which turned into them finally winning it. As a one-game, winner-take-all playoff, it was one for the ages and for once, nobody cared that it took five hours, because there was so much tension and surprise, so much action despite expectations that it might be a pitcher’s duel.

The game offered a little bit of almost everything. Baseball fate, when A’s catcher Giovanny Soto had to leave the game with an injured thumb after applying a tag to a hard-charging Eric Hosmer at the plate. Soto, who had never caught Oakland’s starter Jon Lester, was in the game because his superior throwing arm might help shut down K.C.’s running game. Soto gave way to the weaker-armed Derek Norris and the Royals ran wild on him with seven stolen bases by seven different players – five of them scoring, all coming from the eighth inning on

And unfathomable, nutso managerial strategy, such as K.C.’s botched double-steal play which ran them out of the first inning, with their best hitter at bat. Or Ned Yost’s even weirder decision to yank starter James Shields in the fifth inning with runners on first and second and nobody out, electing to bring in not one of his three great relievers, but the rookie flamethrower Yordano Ventura, who had almost never pitched in relief  before. This was maybe not the time for such venturesome experiments and predictably enough, it blew up on Yost real good and real fast, as the rattled kid promptly gave up a three-run bomb to Brandon Moss – oops, 5-3, A’s. Then 7-3.

Best of all, the game offered a kind of semi-polite but furious debate between offensive philosophies – the extreme speed and small-ball of the Royals against the power, on-base-percentage game of the A’s. Speed almost never wins in these match-ups, but when it’s executed by a team as fast, athletically gifted and fundamentally sound as the Royals, it can win, and did. I was so happy for their fans – 29 years is an awfully long time to wait, and losing after one game after such an exile to baseball Siberia would have been hard to watch. At the same time, I felt awful for the A’s and Billy Beane, who put all his eggs in the starting pitching basket in order to win an extended series, only to watch his team have to struggle to a wild card spot and lose the one game that counted. All that starting depth is for nought now.

Tonight’s NL tilt between the Pirates and Giants has a hard act to follow, but I can’t really lose, or win – they’re my two favourite NL teams. I’m pulling for Pittsburgh because the Giants, with two of the last four championships, have had their fair share of glory lately. Should be fun and I’ll be watching.

© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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