Memorial Day Weekend is the first traditional milepost in baseball, and so far the season is a Tale of Two Leagues:
The AL is as top-heavy as expected, and even though the Indians haven’t played well yet, the only real suspense is likely to be whether the Yankees or Red Sox win the AL East, and which other team claims the second wild-card spot.
The NL, on the other hand, is delightful chaos, with none of the favorites, the Nationals, Cubs, or Dodgers in first place, and, as of Friday, the four teams at the top of every division separated by no more than 3 1/2 games.
So what’s it all mean? Let me try to break some of it down, by deciphering what’s real and what’s not as it applies to the long season.
RED SOX BETTER THAN YANKEES: NOT REAL
As of Friday the Sox were leading the AL East by one game, and while I do think it will be a compelling race, a couple of factors should allow the Yankees to prevail. Most significantly, the Yankees have plenty of payroll room under the luxury-tax threshhold and a deep farm system to make deals at the trade deadline, as they did last year, while the Sox are maxed out with a $230 million payroll. And I’m convinced the Boston bullpen, other than Craig Kimbrel, will spring leaks over the long summer.
METS OUT OF PLAYOFFS: REAL
I picked them as the second-wild card in our preseason predictions, and I think they’ll hang around in that race, but the NL East is much better than expected, which will cost the Mets wins. Unless Steven Matz is turning a corner, having pitched better lately, there are too many questions about their pitching, including the bullpen, and age/injuries will continue to be a problem for the offense.
ASTROS ROTATION MAKES THEM TEAM TO BEAT: REAL
Yanks were impressive in winning three of four in Houston, and they’ll get a chance to flex their muscles against the champs at the Stadium starting Monday. But pitching usually wins in October, and as of Friday, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton had the top three ERAs in the league, at 1.08, 1.86, and .2.04 respectively. With that in mind, Brian Cashman’s challenge is to find a better trade come July than he could have made for Cole last winter.
BREWERS BEST RECORD IN NL: NOT REAL
They might have the best back-end bullpen in baseball, with the emergence of unhittable lefty Josh Hader (58 Ks, 29 1 /3 IP) to go with Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel, and it has been a difference-maker so far, but the lineup doesn’t wow you, even with newcomers Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, and the starting pitching is just OK. I did pick them preseason as the first wild-card, but I still think the Cubs will put the pieces together to win a third straight NL Central title.
BRAVES, PHILLIES AS CONTENDERS: REAL
They’re both ahead of their rebuild timetable, thriving with young talent, and while I still believe the Nationals will win the East, I’m convinced the Braves and Phillies will be factors all year, with at least one of them earning a wild-card. The Phillies have the better young pitching at the moment, the Braves the more dynamic offense, led by rookie stars Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna. The bad news for the Mets is both of them have money to spend and more talent coming from highly-ranked farm systems.
DODGERS AN ALSO-RAN: NOT REAL
As it turned out, the Diamondbacks weren’t good enough to bury them when they had the chance, and now it’s only a matter of time before the Dodgers climb back to the top of the NL West. They survived Justin Turner’s absence; Clayton Kershaw is on his way back from biceps tendinitis; and L.A. still has the most talent of any team in the division.
MOOKIE BETTS AL MVP: REAL
I thought he should have won it in 2016 over Mike Trout, and Trout is having a spectacular season himself. But Betts has raised his game to another level, leading the league in most offensive categories — HRs (16), Runs (49), AVG(.362)— making the Red Sox offense formidable again after last year’s mysterious power outage. It could be a fascinating MVP race, as I expect Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa each to make a push, but it looks like Betts’ year.
JACOB DEGROM NL ERA LEADER: REAL
I’m invested here, having picked him preseason to win the NL Cy Young Award, but I really do believe deGrom has raised his game to the highest level. Home runs were his downfall last year, as he gave up 28 of them, but he’s surrendered only two in 10 starts, pitching to a league-best 1.54 ERA. But can he outpitch the indefatigable Max Scherzer? The Nats ace actually has slightly better overall numbers, going for his third straight NL Cy Young. Should be quite a race.
J.D. MARTINEZ BETTER MOVE THAN GIANCARLO STANTON: REAL
GM Dave Dombrowski took heat in Boston all winter for not getting in on the Stanton deal, but his patience in waiting out Scott Boras and signing Martinez for five-year, $110 million (with opt-outs) has proven crucial for the Red Sox. Martinez is a better pure hitter than Stanton, hitting .328 as of Friday while also out-homering him 15-11. Meanwhile, Yanks are committed to 10 years with Stanton at $24 million per until age 38.
It only seems fair, since I’ve hammered away at Sandy Alderson’s unproductive drafts as a major problem for the Mets, to acknowledge that Brandon Nimmo is emerging as an important player, and far from a bust as the GM’s inaugural first-round draft choice in 2011.
He didn’t develop as quickly as the Mets had hoped, perhaps because of the limited amount of baseball he played in Wyoming. But at age 25, he has become an integral part of the Mets offense this season, justifying the front office’s unwillingness to trade him in a potential deal for Andrew McCutchen last winter.
Filling the void at leadoff, Nimmo had reached base eight straight times as of Friday, to raise his on-base percentage to .450. That was the best in the majors, higher than Mike Trout’s .446, though Nimmo was a couple of dozen plate appearances shy of qualifying for the official MLB statistics.
So what happens when Yoenis Cespedes returns from his hip flexor injury? It’s hard to imagine the Mets will give up on the slumping Jay Bruce, especially on the first year of a three-year, $39 million contract, and they desperately need Michael Conforto to get hot.
Unless Bruce begins playing first base on at least a semi-regular basis, then Nimmo figures to slide back into the role of fourth outfielder, which scouts have deemed almost universally for years as his ceiling.
But he’s also showing more power lately, so maybe he’s a late bloomer who will prove too valuable for the Mets not to play.
As it is, Nimmo is no longer simply the kid the Mets selected one spot in the draft before the Marlins picked the late Jose Fernandez. And good for him, because it’s obvious how much he loves to play, that the smile is genuine, and he’s grinded away for years to get better.
Remember Team Israel from the 2017 World Baseball Classic, a group that earned national attention by making it out of the qualifying stages and, as the 41st ranked team in the world, stunned the likes of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the Netherlands to advance out of the round-robin round of the tournament?
A documentary was made of the team’s journey entitled, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” The award-winning doc makes its New York City debut on Tuesday at the JCC Manhattan.
MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo hatched the idea for the film about a group of Jewish major leaguers traveling to Israel to discover their roots. Except it became more than that when the team outplayed expectations.
“When we first began the project,” Mayo said. “we really thought it was going to be about all these Jewish baseball players exploring what it means to be Jewish by exploring Israel. While that’s obviously still a large theme in the movie, their run in the WBC made it much more about baseball and their Cinderella Story than any of us could have ever imagined.”