A season that feels like it just started has three weeks remaining as of Monday, and 20 teams have at least a decent chance of making the playoffs.
But the uncertainty is such that the best team in the game, the Dodgers, made only one move at the trade deadline, and that was to deal spare starter Ross Stripling to the Blue Jays. The Dodgers made their big move in February, and Mookie Betts has been even better than they imagined.
The Twins stayed with what they had. So did the Yankees, who heavily invested in this season before it started. They began Saturday in a tie for second place in the division with the Blue Jays, but feel they’ll get the help they need over time from players coming off the injured list.
They also believe Gerrit Cole will give them more than what have been, by his standards, largely mediocre starts as he builds up innings.
Cole had a 4.17 earned run average after eight starts and 49⅔ innings last season, then was untouchable. He had a 3.91 ERA through 46 innings and eight starts this season.
The Rays subtracted by sending Jose Martinez to the Cubs. Most of his at-bats were coming as the DH, and Martinez wasn’t hitting for power.
Tampa Bay finished 8-2 against the Yankees this season. No team in the American League has more confidence.
Teams will open the postseason in a best-of-three series that is likely to be at a neutral site. For many clubs, that was too risky to warrant dealing prospects, especially at a time when inexpensive players will be needed to make up for payroll cuts coming next season, and probably for a few years beyond that.
There were 32 trades from Aug. 21-31, and counting players to be named later, 91 players were moved. But the better teams largely sat it out.
“I give the Padres credit for going for it the way they did,” one executive said. “Everybody else was being cautious.”
It’s not a coincidence the Padres obtained the best starter (Mike Clevinger) and the Marlins the best hitter (Starling Marte).
San Diego hasn’t been to the postseason since 2006 under Kevin Towers and Bruce Bochy, and hasn’t won a postseason series since 1998. The Marlins’ last postseason appearance was in 2003.
At some point, you have to remind people in the market that you still exist.
That dynamic existed with Toronto, too. The Blue Jays were aggressive, acquiring Stripling and Taijuan Walker to boost the rotation, along with Robbie Ray, who struggled for the Diamondbacks but was effective in long relief against the Marlins in his first game after the trade.
The Blue Jays have adapted well to playing in Buffalo. The players and staff stay at a hotel a short distance away, and hitter-friendly Sahlen Park fits their lineup well.
“Honestly, it’s been fine considering we didn’t know what to expect,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “We’re comfortable playing here. I feel like we have a team that can accomplish a lot.”
Beware the Indians, who haven’t really hit yet but have far and away the deepest pitching staff in the AL. So much so, they felt safe trading Clevinger.
Zach Plesac allowed one run over six innings in his return to the rotation on Tuesday, after what amounted to a three-week detention for carelessness involving coronavirus protocols.
Shane Bieber is having a Cy Young-caliber season, and the pitching might even improve with Austin Hedges catching. Getting him in the Clevinger deal was a subtle good move by Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff.
Sandy Leon has been Cleveland’s primary catcher. Hedges, like Leon, doesn’t hit much, but pitchers love throwing to him.
The AL playoff octet may not change unless the overachieving Tigers find a way in. But the National League, outside of the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, and Padres, is open.
The Phillies have surged since making bullpen improvements, winning seven of the first eight games in which Brandon Workman appeared. GM Matt Klentak also traded for righthander David Phelps, a Joe Girardi favorite from his Yankees days.
Beyond that, the Brewers, Cardinals, Giants, Marlins, Rockies, and even the Mets and Reds have a shot. It’s not inconceivable the No. 8 seed will have a losing record.
It’s why the Giants held on to Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman, and the Mets added Miguel Castro, Robinson Chirinos, and Todd Frazier to a flawed team with a losing record. If Brodie Van Wagenen loses his job in the coming ownership change, at least he’ll go out fighting.
Red Sox clearly in tank mode
With his team down by only two runs in the seventh inning against the Braves on Tuesday, Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke called rookie Kyle Hart in from the bullpen.
Hart had allowed 15 runs on 17 hits and 10 walks over nine innings in his first three games, and hadn’t pitched in six days. He quickly gave up six more runs in what proved to be a 10-3 loss. The Braves had five hits in a row at one point.
Roenicke said afterward that the relievers he would normally use in a close game weren’t available and Hart was the best choice. The Sox had 11 relievers on their lineup card for the game and had used three to that point. Everybody else was resting?
So let’s label this exactly what it is: The Sox have embraced tanking for a better draft pick.
Chaim Bloom didn’t know Chris Sale would blow out his elbow in March. The loss of Eduardo Rodriguez to heart inflammation caused by coronavirus was unforeseen, too.
But the Sox have taken full advantage of the situation.
Martin Perez, a competent starter, has had extra days off before five of his eight starts. Nate Eovaldi also got an extra day before one of his starts.
The better relievers have been used judiciously, too. That has meant more innings pitched by rookies or Triple A vagabonds, and more losing.
Meanwhile, there’s nobody at Fenway Park to boo, and the Celtics and Patriots are diverting attention.
This isn’t as in-your-face as the Astros giving up from 2011–13, or what the Orioles have done the last few years. But the Sox aren’t putting up much of a fight, which is shameful for a team with their financial might.
Because of the shortened season, commissioner Rob Manfred has the right to determine how draft picks will be apportioned, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be based on records this season.
But if the best teams make the playoffs based on records from this season, how do the worst teams not get the best draft picks?
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Is J.D. Martinez the new Adrian Gonzalez?
The designated hitter pinned his early-season woes on not being able to refer to video replays of his at-bats during games. But every player has had to make that adjustment.
It’s not something to complain about. Not now.
Then on Thursday, in a rare interview session, Martinez lectured reporters about what they could ask him.
“I’m going to say my statement before you guys come at me,” Martinez said. “I don’t want to talk about the past, or the history. I want to talk about the present and moving forward. All right, we good?”
This was before any questions were asked.
Martinez can’t be thrilled the Sox traded Mookie Betts and gave up on the season before it started. He’s 33, and there are only so many chances at another ring. But Martinez has had a poor season, and accountability is part of being professional.
I asked Martinez if this season was a legitimate one.
“I’d rather not answer that one, if you get my drift,” he said. “You truly can’t judge what a player is in two months.”
▪ It’s hard to find many positives in this season for the Red Sox. But there is enthusiasm within the organization for the work of 22-year-old Jay Groome at Pawtucket.
Groome has settled into a five-day routine and is learning the habits starting pitchers need to be successful.
“He’s shown maturity and a good work ethic, probably better than what was expected,” Pawtucket pitching coach Paul Abbott said. “He’s been outstanding, in my view.
“He needed to see hitters and compete, and he’s done that. He’s been serious about doing the right things, and I’ve told him that. He’s been professional.”
▪ You can, and should, hate the Betts trade. But Sox fans are clearly warming up to Alex Verdugo.
Verdugo had an .875 OPS through his first 38 games, but it’s much more than that. He plays with passion, and after a few fundamental flubs early in the season has become an excellent outfielder. His seven outfield assists lead the majors. There are 23 teams who don’t have as many.
Verdugo also runs out every ground ball regardless of the score and seems genuinely happy to be playing for the Red Sox. There’s a lot to like.
▪ The coaching staff was convinced Jose Peraza would be a productive hitter going back to February and March. But he has been dreadful to the point of deserving to be released.
Peraza has hit .226 and has been a below-average defender. At this stage, the Sox should give more playing time to Jonathan Arauz, Michael Chavis, and Tzu-Wei Lin.
Roenicke said the team has discussed a call-up from Pawtucket, too. Christian Arroyo and C.J. Chatham are candidates.
▪ Robert Stock looked a bit disheveled when he was on the mound against the Braves on Tuesday. The unshaven, burly righthander was wearing a cap that didn’t seem to fit over his long hair as he labored to get outs.
“He looks like he’s twice-divorced and completely given up on life. I can’t stop watching him. It’s transfixing,” @aaronkessler wrote on Twitter.
Stock’s wife, Sara, saw the tweet.
“0 times divorced, but if he keeps walking the leadoff batter, I’ll consider filing,” she replied.
Stock walked the first hitter he faced in three of his first five appearances.
Brewers still have a shot
The Brewers spent roughly $54 million over the winter on 10 veteran free agents, part of a roster makeover they hoped would boost what has been a team on the rise.
They swung and missed for the most part.
Milwaukee released Brock Holt last month and designated Justin Smoak on Thursday. Alex Claudio, Avisail Garcia, Josh Lindblom, and Eric Sogard have been disappointments, too.
Brett Anderson has been a reliable starter and David Phelps was strong out of the bullpen before he was traded to the Phillies. Beyond that, the best contributions have come from backup infielder Jedd Gyorko in a limited role.
The Brewers went into the weekend 17-19, still in the mix for a wild-card spot. They have struggled to score runs, averaging just 4.0 a game, fourth lowest in the majors.
“To some extent, we have to trust that players who have performed at the major league level will perform at the major league level again,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “But we can’t trust that indefinitely and we’ve already made difficult decisions.”
If they do get to the postseason, Milwaukee has the pitching to succeed. Josh Hader walked 10 in his first 11⅔ innings, but opponents were 0 for 35 with 18 strikeouts.
Rookie righthander Devin Williams has been an impenetrable setup man, giving up one earned in his first 15 innings and striking out 31. Another rookie, 30-year-old Eric Yardley, has impressed after being claimed off waivers from the Padres last winter.
“Their bullpen doesn’t give up much contact, and when they do, it’s soft,” a scout said. “It’s a playoff bullpen, but they need to get there first.”
As a 23-year-old with the Indians in 1964, Luis Tiant beat the Yankees and Red Sox in the first two games of his career. No starter managed that feat until Ian Anderson of the Braves came along this season. He beat the Yankees on Aug. 26, then the Red Sox at Fenway on Tuesday. Anderson, 22, is from Rexford, N.Y., not too far from the Massachusetts border, and grew up a Red Sox fan. The Sox had him in for a workout before the 2016 draft, but Atlanta took Anderson third overall. Tiant, by the way, went 18 innings and allowed one run. Anderson allowed three runs over 12 innings … Starling Marte could play 63 games in a 60-game season. He played 33 games for Arizona before being traded to Miami. The Marlins had 30 games remaining … All 30 teams played last Sunday for the first time since July 26. The Athletics and Astros were postponed a day later because of a positive coronavirus test. There were 20 games played on Friday, the most since Aug. 4, 1974 … The Brewers really took the coronavirus protocols to the next level, switching bullpens at Miller Park so the relievers from each team wouldn’t cross paths walking across the field before games … Former Hopkinton High baseball and hockey player Dan Merzel made his MLB umpiring debut this past week. He was one of the 19 minor league umpires selected as backups for this season. Merzel played baseball at Johns Hopkins and earned an engineering degree, but elected to stay in baseball … Details are still coming together, but MLB has approved teams running a fall program for prospects that could start on Sept. 18. Clubs can use their spring training facilities or, once the major league season ends, their alternative site. Games against other teams would be permitted. Baseball America reported that teams would be responsible for testing players for COVID-19, along with their housing and food. Players will be paid at the rate they would have been during the season … The Pawtucket Red Sox had so much success with their “Dining on the Diamond” this season that it’s expanding to the “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, Iowa, starting on Friday and continuing on weekends though October. Pawtucket has hosted approximately 6,000 people for dinner on the field at McCoy Stadium … Happy 35th birthday to Mitch Moreland, somebody the Red Sox were smart to trade when they did, but will miss on the field and in the clubhouse. The folks who handle community relations for the Sox will miss him, too. Moreland always had time for kids, especially those connected to The Jimmy Fund.