Trout, Scherzer and the best of 2015 so far
On this Fourth of July, we salute a baseball season that has given us new stars like Joc Pederson, Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa. We pause to praise the greatness of Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. We raise a glass to the Astros, the Twins and the Cubs.
And we salute a completely scrambled playoff picture, the promise of a chaotic non-waiver Trade Deadline and a September that has the potential to be the best ever. On this day of celebration and thanks, we're reminded there has never been a better time to be a baseball fan.
So here's to a memorable first three months, with the best yet to come. Let's count the ways:
Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper: Sometimes a guy comes along who fulfills all the hype and forecasts greatness. Doesn't it seem like he's been around forever? Now, at the ripe old age of 22, he might just be the National League's best player and most electrifying performer. It's not just the numbers, either, although they are spectacular (24 home runs, 1.166 OPS). He's one of those rare creatures who thrives when the lights are bright and the stage is large. Wow. Just, wow.
Cardinals: Injuries here and there. Offensively challenged. Yawn. All the Cardinals do is win. Their blueprint -- great ownership, smart hires and stability -- works. In the last 20 seasons, they've had one owner, two general managers and two managers. Despite the stain of at least one employee having hacked into the Astros system, the product on the field is better than ever. This season's .654 winning percentage through 78 games has them on a pace to win 106 games, which would be baseball's best since the 2001 Mariners (116-46, .716).
Astros: Who saw this coming? After averaging 104 losses the last four seasons, the Astros have gotten breathtakingly good in a short amount of time. They've spent three months atop the AL West. They're good, and just as important, they're interesting. Shortstop Correa, 20, is headed for greatness. Dallas Keuchel has been one of the game's best pitchers the last two seasons. Are they real? Their bullpen certainly is. So is their defense. Their offense is about home runs, stolen bases and strikeouts. Best of all, if they need a veteran to shore up the lineup or rotation, general manager Jeff Luhnow has the pieces in place to get a deal done. No general manager on the planet has done a better job getting his team to this point.
Angels center fielder Mike Trout: He's so good, we sometimes take him for granted. Not just his production -- and he does everything well -- but his work ethic and demeanor and all the rest. If there's a blueprint for what we'd want every player to be, he's it. He has finished first or second in the last three AL MVP races and is right back in the mix this season, on pace for 40 home runs, 35 doubles and 20 stolen bases. Take a good look at this guy. Someday, you're going to be telling people you were one of the lucky ones who got to see him play.
Cubs: The little Cubbie Bears are close to being all grown up. At 42-36, they could be headed for their first winning season since 2009 and first playoff appearance since 2008. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein had a tremendous offseason in hiring a great manager (Joe Maddon), signing a No. 1 starter (Jon Lester) and calling up a franchise player (third baseman Bryant). The Cubs are a young team and far from perfect, but it's no longer about expectations. The future is now, and it's bright.
Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez: Who knew he had any productive baseball left in him? When he hit .120 during the 2012 playoffs, it looked like his time had passed. Now after a year off, and fully recovered from two hip surgeries, he has 15 home runs and an .887 OPS. He also seems committed to writing as dignified an ending to his career as he can. He has said and done all the right things.
Parity: Twenty-six teams are within 6 1/2 games of a postseason berth, and that appears to be the new norm in baseball. Even the clubs on the fringe of contention see themselves as one winning streak away from a serious postseason run. It's not about money. If the season ended today, seven of the top 10 payroll teams would be out of the postseason, while five in the bottom half would be in -- Royals, Orioles, Twins, Pirates and Astros.
Rays manager Kevin Cash: Never be the guy who follows a legend. OK, maybe that's not always the case. When the Rays settled on 37-year-old Cash as the guy to replace Maddon, they simply could not have made a better selection. Cash is a reminder that the Rays are good at what they do, and that team owner Stuart Sternberg is the gold standard for baseball owners. First, he replaced his head of baseball operations, Andrew Friedman, who left for the Dodgers, with team president Matt Silverman. Silverman has had a tremendous few months on the job and in hiring a former journeyman player like Cash -- a serious, smart guy -- he got someone who was both far different from Maddon, but just as effective.
AL East: Four teams are separated by two games, and the last-place Red Sox are a mere seven games out. Think there might be some scrambling at the Trade Deadline for all five clubs to add a missing piece or two and get over the top? No division race has ever been this close this late in the season, and there's no indication one team is poised to sprint away from the others.
Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt: He's right there with Buster Posey and Harper in the NL MVP debate. Because the D-backs haven't been a standout team during his five seasons, Goldschmidt's greatness sometimes gets overlooked. He's on a 40-homer, 130-RBI pace. He's also one of those too-good-to-be-true guys committed to both being a great player and a great citizen of the community.
Pirates: As great as the Cardinals have been, they've been unable to pull away from a Pirates team that is mentally tough and playoff-tested and features a rotation that can take a team deep into October. Gerrit Cole (11-3, 2.20 ERA) has emerged as a bona fide No. 1 starter, and A.J. Burnett (7-3, 2.05 ERA) has had a tremendous bounce-back season. Andrew McCutchen (.868 OPS) remains one of the game's greatest players and most compelling figures. The Pirates also have a tremendous manager in Clint Hurdle and appear headed for a third straight postseason appearance.
Rookies: Another great class. From Dodgers center fielder Pederson to Astros shortstop Correa to Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco to Cubs third baseman Bryant to Astros right-hander Lance McCullers, baseball is seeing another wave of talent roll across the landscape. Best of all, teams are fast-tracking them through their systems, finally understanding that talent will win out.
Royals reliever Wade Davis: It's not even about giving up runs for the Royals setup man. That's because he doesn't -- one in 35 appearances. Now it's news when he allows a hit. He does allow one of those about every other appearance -- 16 in 35 innings. His ERA is 0.26. Try to wrap your mind around that.
Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis: He does everything well. Not just offensively -- he's third in the AL with a .344 batting average -- but also defensively, and in terms of leadership and setting a tone for the entire team. He's one of those guys who simply is a joy to watch, who seems to love every moment he's on a field.
Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson: He's probably one of those guys who would excel at any sport. He's not just a dominant offensive player, either (.298, 19 homers, 54 RBIs). He's so acrobatic and so athletic that he makes even the most difficult defensive plays look routine.
Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer: Take a good look at this guy the next time he's on your television or at your local ballpark. This is as good as it gets in sports. He's a talented guy who is relentless in maximizing all that talent. In 16 starts, Scherzer has allowed more than two earned runs only three times. He's on pace for a 230-inning, 280-strikeout season. His ERA is 1.82. Go ahead and engrave the NL Cy Young Award and ship it to him.
Twins: Runs? The Twins have been scoring those for a while. This season, the difference is pitching. General manager Terry Ryan remade the rotation, and it has improved from a worst-in-baseball 5.06 ERA last season to a respectable 3.85 this season. Now, with Ervin Santana back from suspension, this could end up being a special baseball summer in the Twin Cities.
Giants: So, whatever happened to that odd-number-year jinx? The Giants have hung right in the NL West, and with Matt Cain back from the disabled list and Hunter Pence due back this month, the Giants are nicely positioned to go back to the postseason and make a run at winning a fourth World Series in six years. They're the prototype franchise with stability, great ownership and the best general manager/manager combination -- Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy -- on the planet. And in Posey, Brandon Crawford and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants have guys who are at their best when the stakes are highest.