Opening Day 2018: All hail super teams

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With Opening Day a day away, almost everyone in the prediction and preview business has made their picks for 2018. While there are some unique variations, the majority of experts have the same division winners: the Yankees, Indians and Astros in the American League and the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers in the NL. There are a non-trivial number of people picking the Red Sox in the AL East, though not even close to a majority from what I’ve seen.

It’s worth nothing that, with the exception of the AL East, these teams all won their division last year and, of course, the Yankees made the playoffs and almost made it to the World Series. Which is to say that we have a group of seven Super Teams in baseball right now. A clear consensus of serious contenders — contenders who seem to stand head and shoulders above their divisional rivals — that I can’t recall in recent memory.

Indeed, as a reader noted yesterday, since the six division format began in 1994, there has never been a season when all six division winners repeated as division champs. The closest we’ve come is 1998-1999, when the Yankees, Indians, Rangers, Braves and Astros (then in the NL Central) all won back-to-back division titles. That year the NL West turned over from the Padres in 1998 to the Diamondbacks in 1999.

All of that felt different, though, in that the margins between first and second place teams we saw last year and which we can reasonably expect to see this year are far greater. Two of the 2017 division winners won by 20 games or more. Four won by ten games or more. Only the AL East was relatively close for most of the year. It’ll likely be the only close division this year too. It looks like, once again, it will be a season of runaway champions.

There are seven teams truly worth a dang this year. Because there has to be ten playoff teams, three more have a chance to write a Cinderella story via an improbable, Wild Card-fueled playoff run, but from Opening Day on Thursday to the end of September, baseball is The Big Seven and the Little Twenty-Three.

It’s not hard to see how we got here. Free agency, which was once used by teams to quickly change their fortunes, is less in favor for a host of reasons. In its place is an ethos where clubs, run by executives with increasingly homogenous backgrounds and philosophies, have been built with a homegrown core of cost-controlled players who give the club a multi-year window of contention.

The Cubs and Astros are the best example of this, but the once free agency-drunk Yankees returned to prominence by developing players in-house. The Red Sox position players are mostly homegrown. The Dodgers have a high payroll due to some free agent signings, but most of that is dead money to players long gone. They’re winning these days because of Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig and Kenley Jansen. The Indians stars are almost exclusively homegrown. Among the Super Teams, the Nationals have the best mix of homegrown and acquired stars, but even their roster isn’t as filled with mercenaries as some of those Yankees teams of 10 or 15 years ago. Bully to those clubs for building strong teams.

The necessary byproduct of this philosophy, however, is a league full of teams trying to get to that contention window like the Cubs and Astros did. Rather than try to cobble together a team that may contend in a given year, teams are increasingly embarking on full-scale rebuilds, punting at the major league level for years at a time in an effort to build a strong farm system that produces cost-controlled superstars. In the past, clubs could do both things at one time, acquiring prospects while at least attempting to field a competitive squad at the big league level in a league characterized by parity. Due to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, however, signing free agents and, perversely, winning baseball games directly impacts the number and quality of a club’s draft picks and reduces the money they have to spend on amateur talent. As such, building and winning is  increasingly a zero sum proposition. Which leaves us in a situation where, in 2018, it’s fair to say that a third of the league has no intention whatsoever of trying to win games.

I believe that the dynamic of clubs not signing free agents and not trying to win unless and until they have a mature core of homegrown players is a bad thing, both aesthetically and philosophically, for Major League Baseball. No one wants to invest their attention or their dollars in a club that is not just ticketed for 98 losses but which is content to be so ticketed. Baseball is consumed by fans in the form of games first, seasons second and the club’s long-term competitive arc a very distant third, and even then it’s only consumed in such a way by front office types and true hardcore, obsessive fans. That clubs are increasingly asking fans to adopt that third perspective over the first and second — “patience, fans, we’re building here!” — is a big ask. That may appeal to the sorts of people who follow every transaction and who understand team building due to heavy immersion in sabermetrics and keeper fantasy leagues, but casual fans are not going to readily agree to come along for that ride.

I will say, though, if you are either a generalist baseball fan who takes in the league as a whole, or if you happen to be a fan of one of the seven Super Teams, this era is not without its appeal. There’s something to be said for seeing a massive collection of talent on one club. To watch the Astros or Yankees lineup do its considerable damage. To watch the Indians pitching staff carve up the opposition. And, of course, to see these Super Teams face off in October, pitting strength against strength. Or, possibly, to see one of those three Cinderella Wild Card teams knock off one of the Super Teams. There’s a lot of drama there.

In the meantime, though, between Thursday afternoon and the end of September, there’s going to be a lot of bad baseball teams playing bad baseball. That so many of them are doing it by choice is a shame, and I’m not sure why Major League Baseball or its clubs feel like anyone should care about them.

Gaylord Perry, two-time Cy Young winner, dies at 84

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GAFFNEY, S.C. — Baseball Hall of Famer and two-time Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry, a master of the spitball and telling stories about the pitch, died at 84.

Perry died at his home in Gaffney, Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler said. He did not provide additional details. A statement from the Perry family said he “passed away peacefully at his home after a short illness.”

The native of Williamston, North Carolina, made history as the first player to win the Cy Young in both leagues, with Cleveland in 1972 after a 24-16 season and with San Diego in 1978 – going 21-6 for his fifth and final 20-win season just after turning 40.

“Before I won my second Cy Young, I thought I was too old – I didn’t think the writers would vote for me,” Perry said in an article on the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. “But they voted on my performance, so I won it.”

“Gaylord Perry was a consistent workhorse and a memorable figure in his Hall of Fame career,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, adding, “he will be remembered among the most accomplished San Francisco Giants ever … and remained a popular teammate and friend throughout his life.”

Perry was drafted by the San Francisco Giants and spent 10 seasons among legendary teammates like Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who said Thursday that Perry “was a good man, a good ballplayer and my good friend. So long old Pal.”

Juan Marichal remembered Perry as “smart, funny, and kind to everyone in the clubhouse. When he talked, you listened.”

“During our 10 seasons together in the San Francisco Giants rotation, we combined to record 369 complete games, more than any pair of teammates in the Major Leagues,” Marichal said. “I will always remember Gaylord for his love and devotion to the game of baseball, his family, and his farm.”

Perry, who pitched for eight major-league teams from 1962 until 1983, was a five-time All-Star who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991. He had a career record of 314-255, finished with 3,554 strikeouts and used a pitching style where he doctored baseballs or made batters believe he was doctoring them.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame said in a statement that Perry was “one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.” The Texas Rangers, whom Perry played for twice, said in a statement that the pitcher was “a fierce competitor every time he took the ball and more often than not gave the Rangers an opportunity to win the game.”

“The Rangers express their sincere condolences to Gaylord’s family at this difficult time,” the team’s statement said. “This baseball great will be missed.”

Perry’s 1974 autobiography was titled “Me and the Spitter,” and he wrote it in that when he started in 1962 he was the “11th man on an 11-man pitching staff” for the Giants. He needed an edge and learned the spitball from San Francisco teammate Bob Shaw.

Perry said he first threw it in May 1964 against the New York Mets, pitched 10 innings without giving up a run and soon after entered the Giants’ starting rotation.

He also wrote in the book that he chewed slippery elm bark to build up his saliva, and eventually stopped throwing the pitch in 1968 after MLB ruled pitchers could no longer touch their fingers to their mouths before touching the baseball.

According to his book, he looked for other substances, like petroleum jelly, to doctor the baseball. He used various motions and routines to touch different parts of his jersey and body to get hitters thinking he was applying a foreign substance.

Giants teammate Orlando Cepeda said Perry had “a great sense of humor … a great personality and was my baseball brother.”

“In all my years in baseball, I never saw a right-handed hurler have such a presence on the field and in the clubhouse,” Cepeda added.

Seattle Mariners Chairman John Stanton said in a release that he spoke with Perry during his last visit to Seattle, saying Perry was, “delightful and still passionate in his opinions on the game, and especially on pitching.

Perry was ejected from a game just once for doctoring a baseball – when he was with Seattle in August 1982. In his final season with Kansas City, Perry and teammate Leon Roberts tried to hide George Brett’s infamous pine-tar bat in the clubhouse but was stopped by a guard. Perry was ejected for his role in that game, too.

After his career, Perry founded the baseball program at Limestone College in Gaffney and was its coach for the first three years.

Perry is survived by wife Deborah, and three of his four children in Allison, Amy and Beth. Perry’s son Jack had previously died.

Deborah Perry said in a statement to The AP that Gaylord Perry was “an esteemed public figure who inspired millions of fans and was a devoted husband, father, friend and mentor who changed the lives of countless people with his grace, patience and spirit.”

The Hall of Fame’s statement noted that Perry often returned for induction weekend “to be with his friends and fans.”

“We extend our deepest sympathy to his wife, Deborah, and the entire Perry family,” Baseball Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said.