Atlanta Braves v Philadelphia Phillies

Your Monday Morning Power Rankings

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The All-Star Break is here, and even though the season is more than half over, it’s that time when everyone assesses the so-called first half.  We’ll do the same here today. The rankings represent the current state-of-the-league, but the comments about each team are a bit more first-half all-encompassing.

As always, last week’s rankings are in parenthesis.

1. Phillies (1): They are who we thought they were. The best team in baseball. Not invincible as some predicted, but there are idiots who predict a lot of stuff.

2. Red Sox (3): Same story, though certainly a more tumultuous path to their current ranking. Slow start, pitchers’ injuries. It’s enough to keep them in a tight race. Probably tighter than everyone thought.

3. Yankees (2): It’s been a while since we’ve seen a combination of (a) a damn successful team; and (b) fan-base freaking out like we have with the 2011 Yankees. If you only paid attention to the commentary and not to the scores, you’d think they were .500 or something. Maybe worse.

4. Braves (4): Being 3.5 behind the Phillies is like being the plain Jane next to the homecoming queen. If the plain Jane were standing near anyone else, people would go “saaaay, look at her.”  I’d offer up the old Jan Smithers/Loni Anderson/WKRP analogy here, but every time I do that, I get about 10 pro-Smithers comments to every one pro-Loni comment. Which I get on some level — I’m a Bailey man myself — but it has made plain Jane/bombshell comparisons very, very tricky.

5. Rangers (11): Their place in the standings is about what we all expected. The number of games they are ahead of the second place team: not so much. Like a few teams, they look fabulous one week (like last week) and kind of blah the next. Hard to get a read, but you get the sense they’ll pull away eventually.

6. Giants (6): Winning close games, doing it without much offense. Yep, these are the Giants we’ve come to know and, well, know.

7. Angels (12): I thought they’d crater. I think a lot of people did. The only person I know who didn’t was my HBT Daily amiga Tiffany Simons, who predicted they’d win the AL West and bet me a nice meal in New York on the matter. The fact that they’re keeping it close has me worried. Then again, the fact that if I “lose” this bet, I take Tiffany out to dinner someplace in New York means that there really would be no losers here. Well, Tiffany maybe, but I don’t care.

8. Rays (5): Kind of what I figured. A little better than what I figured, but a solid third place with occasional friskiness seemed right. Losing Carl Crawford and all of that bullpen talent wasn’t nearly as big as some folks made it out to be given the young pitching. Of course, if you would have told me that they’d lose Evan Longoria for a while and that, when he came back, he’d be not-so-good, I would have guessed that they’d be behind Toronto at the moment.

9. Cardinals (8): Kind of the same thing here: a fair pick — not my pick, which I totally whiffed on (see Cubs below) — but a fair pick by anyone to be up at the top of the division. But not if you said that Pujols would struggle early and then break a bone in his friggin’ arm. Yet he did and he did and here they still are.

10. Diamondbacks (10): Anyone who says they thought the Dbacks would be here is lying. Show me the article with the time stamp verified by MLB authenticators and I’ll believe it, but this is not what anyone was expecting.

11. Brewers (9): Pre-season conventional wisdom was that the Greinke and Marcum moves could help fix the bad pitching and if that happened, watch out babies, because Milwaukee would be in it. Greinke has been the Brewers’ worst starter, but look out babies, Milwaukee is in it.

12. Pirates (14): Another shocker. I think people had generally positive thoughts about the direction of the team, but they were positive in the “OK, the sheer horror is probably over, so now we only have some run-of-the-mill misery ahead.” In contrast, this has been delightful.

13. Tigers (13)/Indians (7): The AL Central: everything you wanted in a division. And less.  Look, the Indians’ little run has been nice, but the fact that it has lasted this long without anyone else asserting themselves says less about the strength of the Tribe and more about the weakness of the division.

15. Mets (16): It was so easy back in February and March to feel like doom surrounded these guys, but so much of that was Wilpon/Madoff-related and relatively little of it was about the actual team. To me they felt like a .500 team. Maybe a skosh better if things broke right. Well, things have broke right. Or at least pretty darn well. I think folks should be pretty pleased about what has gone down, even if the future is uncertain.

16. Nationals (20): Another team that tells us how damn foolish we are to try to predict baseball. Did we expect this? Nah. Did anyone see Jim Riggleman quitting? Nah. Davey Johnson at the helm? Nah.

17. Blue Jays (18): In contrast, some things are kind of predictable: the Jays scoring well and hitting lots of homers yet being on the outside looking in in a tough division. Joey Bats is nice though.

18. Reds (15): Last year you got the sense that they caught every break. This year they have the best run-differential in the division yet they’re in fourth place. The worms turn, ya know?

19. Marlins (24): If, over the past 18 years, you said “the Marlins are gonna be a lot tougher than they seem on paper and than their payroll suggests, you’d be right most of the time. This is one of the few years you’d be wrong. Hanley Ramirez not showing up for most of the first half hasn’t helped. Nor has Josh Johnson’s injury.  This was not the team you’d guess would be most notable for hiring the second oldest manager of all time in the middle of the season. I’d guess that Kansas City or someone might, but not the Marlins.

20. White Sox (19): Adam Dunn: .160/.292/.305?  Hell, I would have guessed 10 games out of first, not just five. Either way, disappointing.

21. Rockies (17): Speaking of disappointing. Lots of smart folks figured they’d do better.

22. Twins (27): You could say disappointing here too. Or you could say: “Mauer and Morneau would have OPSs of .592 and .619, respectively, and they’d still only be 6.5 out?”  Eh, always look on the bright side of life.

23. Mariners (21): Down and up and down again, I still think you have to look on the season as successful so far, even with the current downward trajectory.  They learned that they can win with pitching and a couple of young bats at times. Even if more young bats to go along with Smoak and Ackley would be really, really useful.

24. Dodgers (26): Just dreadful. And unlike the Mets, they really can’t leave the business stuff to the side and just play because the empty seats and the much more high-profile nature of the business stuff makes it impossible to ignore.  Some nice pitching, give ’em that.

25. Athletics (22): Pretty dreadful here too. The idea was great: “OK, our pitching is awesome and our hitting sucks, so let’s try to fix the offense.”  The execution, though: not so good. They’re scoring fewer runs this year than last.

26. Padres (23): We now have scientific proof that, if you take away the lone elite bat from the lineup of a team that is always going to struggle to score runs, the prospects for success are somewhat diminished.

27. Royals (29): Early excitement notwithstanding, this is how it was supposed to be: awful pitching, some pop on offense, but mostly just vamping until the kids can mature.

28. Cubs (28): My pick of the Cubs to win the Central was not one of those deals where I would have been willing to bet the mortgage. I was feeling optimistic about a bunch of talented and overpaid people putting it together in such a way where the talent would show itself one final time. Bounce back seasons for Pena, Soriano and Ramirez. A good back end of the pen with Wood and Marmol. A pretty decent rotation, at least on paper.  Yeah, it would have taken some luck for it all to break right, but this struck me as a good break-right kind of club. And one, I must admit, that had I guessed right on, would have allowed me to look pretty damn clever come October.  Ah, well, you win some and you lose some. I mostly lose some when I try to make clever predictions.

29. Orioles (25): Amazingly, this wasn’t the .596 team Buck Showalter had after he took over last year.  I figured they would improve and, again, if everything broke right, challenge for 75-80 wins.  Not happening, though.

30. Astros (30): I got my Cubs, Steve Berthiaume has his Astros. Everyone has a pick like this from time to time. But really, that Astros pick was just nutso.

Marlins acquire starter Dan Straily from the Reds

CINCINNATI, OH - SEPTEMBER 3: Dan Straily #58 of the Cincinnati Reds throws a pitch during the first inning of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park on September 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
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The Miami Marlins have acquired starting pitcher Dan Straily from the Cincinnati Reds. In exchange, the Reds will receive right-handed pitching prospects Luis Castillo and Austin Brice and outfield prospect Isaiah White.

For the Marlins, they get a solid starter who logged 191.1 innings of 113 ERA+ ball last year. Straily has moved around a lot in his five big league seasons — the Marlins will be his fifth club in six years — but it was something of a breakout year for him in Cincinnati. The only troubling thing: he tied for the league lead in homers allowed. Of course, pitching half of his games in Great American Ballpark didn’t help that, and Miami will be a better place for him.

Castillo is 24. He split last season between high-A and Double-A — far more of it in A-ball — posting a 2.26 ERA over 24 starts. Austin Brice is also 24. He pitched 15 games in relief for the Marlins last year at the big league level with poor results. He seemed to blossom at Triple-A, however, after the Marlins shifted him to the pen. White was a third round pick in the 2015 draft. He played low-A ball as a minor leaguer last year, hitting .214/.306/.301.

A mixed bag of young talent for the Reds, but stockpiling kids and seeing what shakes out is what a team like the Reds should be doing at the moment. For the Marlins: a solid mid-to-back end starter who may just be coming into his own.

Have Hall of Fame Voters actually made the PED thing More complicated?

Sammy Sosa
Associated Press
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The story coming out of this year’s Hall of Fame balloting is that the BBWAA voters are finally easing their antipathy toward players with performance enhancing drug associations.

Jeff Bagwell — the subject of unconfirmed PED rumors — made the Hall! Pudge Rodriguez, who was named in Jose Canseco’s book and who had a . . . curious physical transformation around the time PED testing came online, made it on the first ballot! Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, whose PED use was well-documented, saw their vote totals advance above the 50% mark, making their future elections look more likely!

It’s an interesting development, and one I’m obviously pleased with, but I wonder if the BBWAA’s new approach to PED guys, while far more forgiving than it used to be, has actually become more complicated in practice.

I ask this because I look way, way down the ballot and I still see Sammy Sosa scraping by with around 8% of the vote. I ask this because I still see Gary Sheffield at 13%. I ask this because when Mark McGwire was on the Today’s Game ballot in December, no one really stumped for him at all. I ask this because, even though Bagwell and Mike Piazza got in eventually, they still had to go through a lot of hazing first and I suspect, if they hit the ballot for the first time again tomorrow, the same arguments and delay would occur with respect to their cases.

In light of that, what I suspect has happened has not been a wholesale surrender of the anti-PED voters. Rather, I think it has been a transformation. One in which a moral test — did he use PEDs or not? — has been discarded as a threshold question and a scientific/physiological test — would he have been great even without the PEDs? — has replaced it. In essence, voters are becoming “PED discounters” in the aggregate. Making calculations as to whether a guy was, in their mind, a creation of PEDs or not.

Such an approach explains these new voting patterns as well as those in recent years.

  • Ivan Rodriguez may have been called out by Canseco and may have noticeably shrunk over an offseason, but his calling card was his defense behind the plate and voters, I suspect, have told themselves that such a thing is not PED-aided.
  • Bonds and Clemens may have been PED users, but each of them was undeniably talented and, if you discount for the PED use, hey, they’re still all-time greats.
  • Sammy Sosa’s case rests disproportionately on homers and, as everyone knows, PEDs = instant dingers, so no, he’s not gonna cut it.

And so on.

As I said, I’m glad that the strict moral test — did he use or not? — is losing its hold on Hall voters. But I do not think the “did PEDs make him who he was test?” is a good approach either. Baseball writers are in no better a position to assess the physiological and performance enhancements caused by pharmaceuticals than they are to be judges of character and morality. Given the identities of players confirmed to be PED users, the old eye test implicit in these cases is famously faulty (Neifi Perez, anyone?). The idea that PEDs only affect home run totals — and not, say, the ability for a player to take the abuse of the catcher position for 21 seasons — is crude and ignorant.

I suppose it’s naive to expect voters to completely disregard PEDs in their assessment of players. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung. But while we may, thankfully, be moving away from a moral test with respect to drugs, it’s been displaced by a scientific test that is no more reasonable in practice.