Wild-Card Contenders Are Content to Be Sellers, and That's a Problem
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: The cold calculus of buying or selling, Danny Jansen sacrificing his ‘stache, Ned Yost’s Apollo 11 appreciation, and much more.
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If you’re a Diamondbacks fan, you probably came into this week feeling good about your team. Entering play Tuesday, Arizona sits at 51–50 with two thirds of the season in the books. Though any hope of an NL West title is gone, but the D-Backs are in the thick of the wild-card chase, only two games out of the second spot. Their run differential is the best of that bunch, and this week brings a mouth-watering course of games against the Orioles and Marlins. And while there are things about the roster that aren’t working quite right—the back of the rotation and the bullpen in particular—well, that’s what the trade deadline is for, to add reinforcements and upgrades. A playoff push was seemingly in the cards.
Unfortunately, if you’re a Diamondbacks fan, general manager Mike Hazen dashed any positive feelings you might’ve had mighty quickly. Per The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan:
In a follow-up tweet, Buchanan noted that Hazen hadn’t entirely ruled out getting help in the next week, but that it’s probably predicated on Arizona getting and staying above .500. The groundwork, then, has been laid for the D-Backs to sell off pieces to contenders and go into hibernation for the rest of 2019.
The math, or at least the analytics, supports that decision. While Hazen is wrong that .500 teams can’t win titles (the 2006 Cardinals won 83 games and the World Series) or that wild-card squads can’t survive the October gauntlet (see the 2015 Royals, 2014 Giants, 2011 Cardinals, etc.), he’s right that the path would be tougher. Going all in at the deadline—or at least, sacrificing young, cost-controlled players for better veterans—is a big ask when the reward is a one-game playoff followed by a best-of-five series against a Dodgers team on pace to win 106 games.
But the result of that bleak calculation is a season flushed down the tubes before it’s even over. Not every team has an equal chance to win the World Series, and pushing in all your chips on a 1% chance leads to you going broke 99% of the time. But what’s the point of building a roster and playing the games and asking people to support the team if you’re going to stop yourself short? Fans in the desert have seen one championship in more than two decades of existence, and that title came 18 years ago. This D-Backs team is no juggernaut, but at .500 and in a winnable wild-card race, don’t you at least owe it to the fans to try instead of giving up and going home with two months still left on the calendar? What’s the point of playing otherwise?
Arizona isn’t the only club in this spot. The Giants are right there with them in the chase for a wild-card but are more likely than not to sell at the deadline. The Rockies are sinking but seem unlikely to slow their descent by making improvements. The Pirates and Padres are already looking toward 2020 and beyond. And that doesn’t include all the teams that came into this season with zero intention to contend, treating 2019 like just another long step in an indefinite rebuild.
This isn’t to suggest the Diamondbacks or any other fringe contender burn down their farm system or trade their future for a long-shot title run. But it’s a gigantic bummer for their fans that, given the choice of aiming for a championship or taking the rest of the summer off, the front office seems happy to pick the latter. That’s no way to build a product that people want to consume or feel good about.
The MVP of the Week
Most any player you ask will say that they would sacrifice or change anything within reason to win a game, pick up a hit, or otherwise succeed at baseball. But only one man last week had the gall—nay, the courage—to put his money where his mouth (or at least his mustache) is.
That’s Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen, who, between innings against Detroit last Friday, decided that his mojo needed immediate fixing, and that the solution was to shave off his soup strainer. Amazingly enough, it worked: After going 0-for-3 pre-trim, a newly baby-faced Jansen hit a two-run single in his fourth trip to the plate. Granted, the game was already well out of reach by then, but it’s still a true sign of dedication from Toronto’s rookie backstop. Most folks (myself included) would never give up a hard-earned mustache or beard. But Jansen wouldn’t let his follicles or upper-lip irritation get in the way of personal achievement. For that, he’s this week’s MVP of the week.
The Worst Play of the Week
In the world of foul ball catches in the stands, there are only two genres. Either a grab is an inspirational piece of work, be it the result of stellar athleticism or overcoming adversity (i.e., you snagged a ball while holding a beer/a baby/a priceless family heirloom/the only extant copy of the Magna Carta), or it’s a nightmare of poor hand-eye coordination and the brutal realities of gravity and velocity colliding. Given that this section is called “This Week’s Worst Play of the Week,” you can probably guess on which end of the spectrum this clip of a Giants fan trying to palm a ball lands.
The attempt itself isn’t that bad; a one-handed snare of a sinking liner is a tough play no matter what. But what makes this a doozy is that, angered by his own failure, this dude knocks his own glasses out of his butter-covered hands. It’s never worth being mad that you missed a foul ball; that goes especially so when it costs you some nice eyewear in the process.
The Best Quote of the Week
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has been cause for celebration across the country and in all forms of culture. Even MLB has gotten into the fun, with the Astros wearing a special Apollo 11-inspired cap on Monday. But I can’t imagine any player, manager, front office exec or anyone else in baseball cares quite as much about Neil Armstrong’s lunar footprints as much as Royals skipper Ned Yost, who took time out of a pregame scrum last Wednesday to share just how much he knows about and loves the moon landing.
Congrats to Yost on almost certainly becoming the first manager in MLB history to mention the Apennine mountain range and the Hadley Rille in a press conference.
The Dumbest Move of the Week
Going onto the field during the game if you’re a fan is a bad idea. You might get a fun highlight out of it, or a hug, or a chance at some slip and slide. But regardless of what you do when your feet touch the grass, your night’s going to end in ejection and possible arrest, and maybe even a lifetime ban from the stadium.
If you’re going to ignore all that and jump the fence, though, please consider doing it in a more interesting fashion than this dude at Sunday’s Pirates-Phillies game, who nonchalantly ambled up to home plate to try to say hi to (for some reason) Brad Miller.
On the one hand, kudos for not rushing a player and making him think that he’s about to get tackled by a random idiot. On the other hand, there’s something deeply unnerving about a guy slowly walking up, hand extended, as if he’s about to tell you about the Humane Society or the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is probably why Miller just kept backing away.
This Week In … Proactive Scheduling!
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Rolling Loud festival announced its full lineup for its inaugural New York iteration, bringing a ton of hip hop’s biggest stars to the Big Apple for a jam-packed weekend of music.
That’s all well and fine for the Travis Scott or A$AP Rocky or Lil [Insert Name Here] fans across the five boroughs and the tri-state area, you might be saying to yourself, but what’s it got to do with baseball? Well, as you can see up in the top left of that tweet, this year’s Rolling Loud will take place in Citi Field—in the middle of October. In other words, the Mets have already put a vacancy sign up for the postseason.
Granted, that’s a practical decision. New York entered the week nine games under .500 and seven games out of a playoff spot, so odds are that Rolling Loud is going to be the only action happening at Citi Field that weekend. Still, it’s pretty much the opposite energy of this Hall of Fame tweet.
My hope now is that the Mets go on a huge August and September run, make the playoffs, and have to play around/with the festival. You can field an entire baseball team with the Wu-Tang Clan anyway, so why not just have them play instead?
This Week In … Vladimir Guerrero Jr.!
Any hope that Vlad Jr.’s titanic Home Run Derby performance was going to turn around his blah season has so far gone down like, well, the Titanic. After slashing .261/.346/.391 over the last six days, Junior’s season line is a mere .246/.323/.400 in just shy of 300 plate appearances. (Though he did hit a grand slam.) That’s a far cry from what was expected, and it’s now past the point of a small sample size.
Perhaps the bar was always too high for Guerrero, given that he’s only 20, but after the way he nuked the minors, you had to assume the best. Still, it’s been such a slow transition to the majors that the dreaded possibility of a demotion feels more and more possible. That’s not to suggest that the Blue Jays have raised the idea, but Toronto has done it numerous times this season with other struggling young hitters. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Billy McKinney, Teoscar Hernandez and Rowdy Tellez have all been sent back to Triple A after rough stretches in the bigs, and that time in Buffalo seems to have done wonders for Gurriel and Hernandez upon their returns to the majors.
Is that what’s in store for Guerrero? I hope not, but it’s understand that if this disappointing summer continues, the Blue Jays may want to give him a break to clear his mind and work on things in an easier environment. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, and not just because I’d prefer not having to mothball this section.
This Week In … The Weather as Your Friend!
Man, it was a hot one. Over the weekend, a hideous heat wave blanketed cities across the Midwest and Northeast, with temperatures touching triple digits. Despite the oven-like climate, baseball continued apace, including at a sweltering Wrigley Field for Cubs-Padres. Understandably, then, when the weather briefly changed course on Saturday, the fans on the North Side were wildly appreciative.
That breeze lowered the temperature at Wrigley by a staggering 16 degrees, but it did more than just keep the fans cool.
The sudden change in wind direction robbed Manny Machado of what would’ve been a game-tying solo homer, turning it into a mere flyout to left. That ended up being a crucial play, too, as Chicago held on for a 6–5 victory. No word on whether or not the team dedicated the win postgame to Aeolus.
This Week In … Old Baseball Cards!
Each week, I’ll pluck a random baseball card out of a pile of old 1980s, 90s and 2000s cards I have at my work desk, then write a quick little take on the player in question. This week’s entry: Kevin Bass, outfielder, San Francisco Giants (Topps 1991).
If you remember Kevin Bass, it’s likely for one of two reasons. He was the last out of the 1986 NLCS for the Astros, the bitter end to the best season of his entire career. A year later, the switch-hitting outfielder became the 15th player in MLB history to hit a home run from each side of the plate in the same game.
Bay Area fans, though, probably remember Bass as an ill-fated signing by the Giants after the 1989 season. Fresh off a pennant but needing a rightfielder, they inked Bass—who grew up in nearby Redwood City as a Giants fan—to a three-year deal that went sour almost from day one. I think I know why.
Sometime before or during that first season in San Francisco, as you can see in the card pictured above, Bass shaved off his mustache, a beautiful, thick carpet nestled on his upper lip that had a real Tom Selleck feel to it. That same year, he hurt his left knee, eventually requiring surgery on it—an injury that he says took the next two years to recover from and left him a shell of himself. He was a below-average hitter in ’90 and ’91 for the Giants and was traded to the Mets in ’92. His career came to an end not long after.
Is it too simple to blame the loss of the mustache for Bass’ fall, like Samson’s fateful haircut? Perhaps, but it’s also as good a culprit as any. After all, why mess with a good thing?