The 2015 baseball season has made it past the halfway point and to my surprise the New York Yankees have the largest division lead of any team in baseball as I write this on Saturday morning. The Yankees’ 49-40 record is the least impressive of all the division winners but they have a 4.5 game lead by virtue of being the only team in their division with a winning record. Posting this on Monday after the Yankees and Mariners split two games over the weekend the Yankees have a 4 game lead over the Baltimore Orioles which is now only the third largest division lead. This shows how fluid the season still is with 10 weeks remaining.
I didn’t expect the team to be competitive this year. It is a welcome surprise to think about the possibility of the Yankees making the playoffs for the first time in three years. The offense has been good (413 runs – 2nd in baseball) , the pitching spotty (10th in the league in ERA), and overall I was expecting the same sort of 85-90 win team that has been mired on the mediocrity treadmill the past few years. I have hopes for a postseason run because the team has the core ingredients for October success – great relief pitching and stellar top of the rotation pitching. Michael Pineda is finally free from the injuries that have plagued him since being acquired from the Mariners in 2012 and been every bit the ace Yankee GM Brian Cashman hoped for when gave up top prospect and proven steroid user Jesus Montero for him. Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t been worth his 7 year $155 million dollar contract but has been a competent and occasionally outstanding second starter. The bullpen has been generationally stellar with closer Andrew Miller unhittable and setup man Delin Betances (the first Yankee farm system product I’ve mentioned so far) looking as if he can be a generational closer himself with 79 strikeouts in 48 innings. If the Yankees can get to the playoffs and get a playoff quality starter from Ivan Nova or Nathan Eovaldi or CC Sabathia to go along with Pineda and Tanaka they could make 2015 a championship year.
The Yankee bats have been good enough to score the second most runs in baseball. The offense consists of past their prime sluggers (Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, and steroid user Alex Rodriguez), above average table setters (Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner), and competent end of the order players in Brian McCann and Chase Headley to go along with good field no hit middle infielders. Every single one of the offensive players I mentioned are past the age of 30 which makes the possibility of a summer drop-off a concern but for now I’ll take leading the division in mid-July.
With a payroll of 211 MILLION DOLLARS (second only to the Dodgers $273 million) I expect the Yankees to be near the top of the league. I’m not saying the Yankees’ payroll should be enough to buy them a World Series but to spend 100 MILLION DOLLARS more on players than teams like the Royals, A’s, and Orioles and then be on the outside of the playoffs looking in while these low spending teams are participating makes no sense to me. If I owned the Yankees I’d hire the guy running the Tampa Bay Rays to run my team. The Rays consistently have the lowest payroll in baseball and consistently have a .500 or better team. They do this by having a better farm system than most other teams and it can’t just be because they get good draft picks – they’ve won 90+ games 5 of the last 8 years even though they can only keep a handful of their best players. The combination of the Rays farm system smarts with the Yankees wallet could be a dynasty for the ages.
I didn’t see any of the All-Star game but I saw the headlines about former Yankee A.J. Burnett finally making it to the All-Star team in 2015 in what is his final major league season. It was a feel good story that turned into a feel bad story when Burnett didn’t get in the game. Burnett started 6 playoff and World Series games for the Yankees 2009 to 2011 and was either quite good or really bad. Burnett won game 2 of the 2009 World Series when he gave up one run over seven innings. He followed that up in Game 5 by not giving the Yankees a chance when he gave up six runs in 2+ innings. In his game one start in the 2013 division Series for the Pirates, Burnett was torched for 7 runs in 2 innings by the Cardinals. He didn’t pitch in the rest of the five game series. I suppose I’m happy Burnett made an All-Star team but I can’t blame N.L. manager Bruce Bochy for not putting him in given his spotty record in big games. The bloated 33 man roster for the All-Star Teams means that in any given baseball game you will be seeing five all-stars and there are plenty of good pitchers besides Burnett. If the All-Star game roster was a standard 25 players Burnett likely wouldn’t even have been on the team.
One Yankee who didn’t make the All-Star team was Alex Rodriguez, who missed the entire 2014 season because he was suspended for steroid use. Rodriguez is second on the team in home runs with 19 and third in RBI with 52. Rodriguez turns 40 next week and is 89 home runs short of the steroid-aided record of 762 of Barry Bonds. Rodriguez needs 30 home runs a year over the next three years to break the tainted home run record. Logic says he can’t but logic also wouldn’t say that Rodriguez would have his best slugging percentage since he was 34 years old after a year suspension and yet he does. If A-Rod’s resurgence is the result of yet another breakthrough in performance enhancing drugs there is no reason he can’t break the tainted home run record.
The last thing I noticed about the All-Star Game was that it was in Cincinnati and all-time hits leader Pete Rose was allowed one of his infrequent associations with major league baseball. He was introduced on the field as one of Cincinnati’s franchise four players. Rose accepted a lifetime ban from baseball in 1989 after a lengthy battle with then Commissioner Bart Giamatti over whether Rose bet on baseball games as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Rose didn’t admit to betting on baseball, claiming he couldn’t fight those charges and his income tax evasion trial at the same time. Giamatti died of a heart attack a few months after Roses’s ban and the stress caused by Rose’s public battle with him was largely credited with causing the chain smoking and overweight Giamatti's death. This led to a ruling by that players on baseball's ineligible list are not eligible to be on the Hall of Fame ballot and effectively locked Rose out of baseball's highest honor until he is reinstated by Major League Baseball.
26 years have passed since Rose’s suspension. In 2004, Rose wrote a book called ‘My Prison Without Bars’ in which he admitted he bet on baseball as a manager. Earlier this year Rose applied for reinstatement to new baseball commissioner Rob Manfred (the third commissioner since Giamatti). Last month ESPN claimed to have obtained documents proving Rose bet on baseball while he was still an active player.
I think new Commissioner Manfred would like to score a public relations coup by letting Rose become eligible for the Hall of Fame but will resist that temptation and will be reinstated posthumously if at all. Letting Rose into the Hall of Fame would make finding out every detail about his gambling a career making story for every sports journalist. The reason that only dead people are allowed on stamps, coins, and bills is to keep the honoring institutions from being embarrassed. Penn State no doubt thought honoring Joe Paterno with a statue while he was alive to enjoy it was a great idea and the Big Ten no doubt thought that naming their football championship trophy after Joe Paterno while he was alive to enjoy it was a great idea. When Paterno became embroiled in the Sandusky child abuse scandal the statue was removed from the Penn State campus and his name removed from the trophy to the great embarrassment of the Big Ten and Penn State. I can’t see Major League Baseball letting Pete Rose in their Hall of Fame until he’s passed away and not available to confirm, deny, or even say no comment to any future gambling allegations.