The Angels will make the playoffs…or at least let’s figure out a way they can

The Angels are irrelevant before the All-Star break despite having Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout

As badass as the moment was of seeing Shohei Ohtani face Mike Trout with the World Baseball Classic on the line last night, you could forgive Los Angeles Angels fans if they were rubbing their temples a bit during it. The cry whenever either or both of those names come up in conversation has been, “Fuck, wouldn’t it be great if these two could play in games that matter?!” It was always a fantasy. Well, now we’ve all seen it, which is only going to grow the appetite for it, which is only going to amp the focus on the Angels, and the pressure. There are going to be a lot of people outside Orange County watching the Halos, and most baseball fans don’t take kindly to outsiders constantly telling them things about their team, things they probably already know.

Secondly, it’s a pretty big taunt when the two best players your team has ever had — and two of the greatest the game has ever seen — are saying that a game in another competition with different teams is the coolest moment of their career. Not only have fans gotten a taste of what it looks and feels like to have Trout and Ohtani taking big ABs or throwing the biggest pitches, but now they have to. Playing out the string in August and September is going to feel even more empty for them. Which is a real problem considering Ohtani is a free agent after the season, and the team up the I-5 has cleared the decks financially just in time. Needless to say, one drawback of the WBC for one certain fandom has turned up the volume on this season to 11.

So it’s good for the Angels, good for the fans, and good for Trout and Ohtani that this shapes up to be the most competent Angels team in a while, certainly that Ohtani has played on. Yeah, being “competent” isn’t usually a goal teams and fans would consider a bar worth celebrating when cleared, but this is the Angels and this is Rob Manfred’s MLB in 2023.

It sounds funny considering the Angels are coming off a 71-win season, and have to get to somewhere between 85-90 wins to make the postseason. Jumping up 15 games from one season to the next takes more than a smile. So how do the Angels get there?

Because they were such a non-factor last season, it’s important to remind everyone that Anaheim’s rotation last year was really good. They finished sixth in MLB in starters’ ERA, and 10th in FIP. They return four of those starters — Ohtani, Patrick Sandoval, Reid Detmers, and José Suarez. To that, they add Dodgers reclamation project Tyler Anderson. Is Anderson actually the 2.57 ERA/63 ERA- pitcher he was last year in blue? Probably not. Anderson found a significant drop to his change-up last season, which pushed him to use it far more than he ever had (24 percent in 2021 to 31 last season), which boosted his ground-ball rate and cut his HR/FB rate in half from his career mark. He won’t snap back to career norms simply because, as long as his change is still around the same weapon it was. But the fiendish BABIP gods smiled upon him last year, and we know they can be fickle simply to entertain themselves. However, the Angels aren’t counting on him to be anything more than a No. 3 or No. 4 starter.

Sandoval, Detmers, and Suarez all have room for growth, as all are basically coming off their first full season as starters. Sandoval will need to find a bit more control, as a 9.4 percent walk rate isn’t going to cut it.

One of the quirks of having Ohtani is having to use a six-man rotation. Which meant as good as the rotation was 1-5 last season, they still had to toss away 18 starts on Michael Lorenzen (who wasn’t all that bad!). The Angels are going to tweak that a bit this season, so Ohtani will pitch every sixth day instead of every sixth game. That should get all five starters an extra start or two or more. How Ohtani holds up, or the rest of them hold up, with a few extra turns is anyone’s guess. This is a pitcher who has never thrown more than 166 innings. Same goes for the rest of the rotation save Anderson. But getting their best pitchers more starts, assuming health, is a good thing.

It can be truly said that the Angels need more bats in their belfry

That won’t help the Angels score more runs though, and that’s where the real problem is for Anaheim. They were 25th in runs, and 26th in OBP last season. Having Anthony Rendon and Trout around for a combined 166 games last year was one reason, but one can’t simply assume health for either for a full season. The Angels have added Brandon Drury at second, Hunter Renfroe in right, and rookie Logan O’Hoppe behind the plate to try and have a representative offense. Drury is a real risk, as he popped out of nowhere with a couple of big months in Cincinnati which got him a trade to San Diego, where he was mostly fine-plus. It all resulted in a far bigger season than he’d ever produced before. Renfroe has consistent pop and will provide a bigger weapon than Brandon Marsh while being much worse defensively. O’Hoppe, if he carries over his minor league numbers, will greatly aid the Angels’ OBP problems as he carried a walk-rate of 13 percent in the Phillies system last season (he was part of the Marsh trade).

If all of these guys hit, the Angels’ lineup has some real length…assuming Trout and Rendon can stay on the field. It basically goes eight-deep until David Fletcher in the nine-spot. Another quirk of having Ohtani on the roster is the Angels can’t get anyone a half-day off at DH without losing Ohtani’s bat. With the questionable structural integrity of both Rendon and Trout, that might have been something they wanted. So the Angels have to have a pretty strong bench. Which was probably the thinking of trading for Gio Urshela even though first and third are blocked up and he doesn’t have an obvious place to play. Urshela was pretty good for the Twins last year, and has spent spring training preparing to bounce all over the field to sub in for Rendon or Jared Walsh when needed, or even moonlighting at short which would see the Angels lineup be pretty damn solid 1-9. Whether they’ll be a Pollock painting on defense is an open question, and a question that might worry seeing as how beyond Ohtani this isn’t the biggest strikeout staff in the world. They also have Luis Rengifo who can at least stand in most of the infield positions and Brett Phillips who is a plus fielder in all three outfield spots, though neither is going to be anything more than average with the bat at best.

The Angels catch a break in that the number of division games is cut, because one of the few teams that could potentially have a lineup and rotation as long as theirs is Seattle and the Astros are the Astros, even with Jose Altuve out for a couple months. Any improvement from the Rangers, i.e. sustained Jacob deGrom health, would make them spicier as well.

The Halos can get there if Drury proves to not be a one-season fluke and O’Hoppe takes to the majors. Hinging on the health of Trout and Rendon was always the price of doing business. But should Drury and O’Hoppe be productive, that’s three spots in the lineup that the Angels will get way more out of than they did last year. Getting Rendon to even 100 games would be double what they got last year, and they’ll hope for much more (he’s crushing spring training, whatever that’s worth).

The Angels will play games that mean something in September unless more shit goes horribly wrong. Again, it’s a low bar considering the top of the roster, but it’s something. And perhaps if given a whiff late in the season, Ohtani and Trout can simply drag them the rest of the way.

If you’d like to keep tabs on Sam while he wonders the baseball desert without a team to love thanks to the Ricketts family, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate

In the era of offense over everything, golf is trying to zag, and Rory McIlroy is onboard

Rory McIlroy is... in favor of this for some reason?

What would you say if I told you that baseball was capping how far a ball can be hit, basketball decided to negate shots over 30 feet, or the NFL limited how far the football can be thrown in the air? Your first reaction would probably be like mine when I read that Rory McIlroy is on board with the USGA’s proposal to limit drive distance.

In an appearance on the (ironically named) No Laying Up Podcast, the Northern Ireland golfer said:

“For elite-level play, I really like (the idea). I really do.

“I’m glad in this new proposal that they haven’t touched the recreational golfer. I know that’s a really unpopular opinion amongst my peers, but I think it’s going to help identify who the best players are a bit easier.

“Especially in this era of parity that we’ve been living in these past couple of decades.”

OK, man, whatever you say. We’re going to eliminate massive advantages of certain players, and it’s going to result in the rise of the next Tiger Woods? What kind of rough are you smoking?

Golf is already one of the most challenging sports to play, and though the scores can go super low, US Open locales still eat the lunch of most elite guys. The audience wants to watch pros do things they can’t more than they want to see a tournament where the leader isn’t under par, and if everybody is hitting the ball as far as you or I on a windy day and struggling to clear water hazards, too, that appeal is gone. Has no one rewatched Tin Cup recently? The idiocy, my god.

Other pros say rule change tries to fix a problem that isn’t there

Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas each aired their views on the proposal, with Rahm asking, “Why change what’s working?” and Thomas saying the USGA is “trying to create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

I’m not sure if they were fed the same talking points or were mind-melding, but the No. 2- and No. 10-ranked players went on to say it would be bad for the game. Rahm pointed out that it would hurt the less-powerful players who would need a 4- or 5-iron to hit the ball as far as they once did with a 7, while the longer guys like Rahm would have a more distinct advantage because they can still hit the clubs they used to.

That’s probably where McIlroy got his line of thinking considering he’s leading the PGA in distance off the tee (326 yards). The deadened balls would max out at around 320 yards, but it’s not like a governor on a golf cart that immediately hits the brakes once you reach top speed. Everyone would be using the heavy ball, so the move theoretically gives bigger hitters a leg up.

Yet fans won’t be compelled by a contrived Jack Nicklaus or a bootleg Tiger. We want an actual successor — which the PGA and USGA are well aware of and freaking out about — but not one that’s a product of a rule change.

McIlroy’s resuscitated charm back on life support

If you’re like me, the constant sniping between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf has grown stale like a rap beef on its seventh diss track. It’s the sport’s best current rivalry only nothing gets settled on the course, and we’re left with McIlroy constantly bitching about Greg Norman because reporters keep asking Rory about LIV, and Rory keeps answering because this is the most attention he’s gotten since before fans realized he’s the heir apparent to jack shit.

One of the byproducts created by the exodus of talent to the Saudi tour has been the resurgence of McIlroy. He hasn’t won a major since 2014, but did earn top eight finishes in all four majors last year, including second at the Masters and third at the Open Championship, and took home the FedEx Cup as well. Is the success because of watered-down competition? Or has his righteousness boosted him on high, soaring with greats once again via the grace of an incorruptible moral compass? I don’t know, but the latter answer sounds better in the lede of a story.

While I acknowledge that McIlroy and the rest of the golfers who didn’t defect will be on the side of history that didn’t readily accept blood money, what’s overlooked is the divide started because of the PGA Tour’s shitty payment model. The Tour’s recent changes are direct responses to LIV, and I don’t feel good about either management group even though I feel worse about one more than the other.

That brings me back to McIlroy. I appreciate that he was outspoken about players jumping leagues. It was refreshing to know that not all golfers turn into amoebas when offered absurd amounts of money. However, that’s where my affinity stops. I’m good on the sound bites, I’m good on the coverage, and I’m good on Rory. Go win the Masters and give me a reason to listen to you give an interview.

You can’t script baseball, but sometimes it can seem like it

Shohei Ohtani (middle) struck out Mike Trout to win it for Japan

What they tell you about baseball a lot, is that because everyone gets a turn, you can’t guarantee that your best player will get to the plate with the game on the line. Sometimes it’s your second baseman with no concept of the strike zone who wets himself at the sight of any fastball over 96 MPH. Sometimes you can’t even guarantee you can throw your best pitcher, depending on how you deploy your pen, or if the game goes to extra innings, or if your manager insists that closers can only pitch the ninth before he battles his latest case of incontinence. That’s the 162, everyone’s going to matter at some point.

But late at night, when the demons come, if you asked Rob Manfred how he’d want the WBC to end, it would have been USA v. Japan, game tied or the U.S. trailing by a run, with Shohei Ohtani on the mound vs. Mike Trout. A matchup we don’t think about normally, the best player of his generation against someone we literally have never seen anything like before. Comparisons to Babe Ruth? That fat fuck had nothing on Ohtani as a pitcher.

Manfred got his wish, which is obviously the worst way to frame what may end up the coolest moment of the entire baseball season. Or the past several seasons. Enjoy it without thinking about the commissioner.

One of the aspects MLB is missing out on by scheduling the WBC when it does, and one of the things Olympic hockey actually gets right, is the months of anticipation fans go through building rosters in their head and dreaming about things like Ohtani vs. Trout. It’s a pastime in Canada to build out Olympic hockey rosters even when no one knows if there will be Olympic hockey years in advance. The best part of July 1 and the dawn of free agency is watching TSN fill dead air by projecting out the next Canadian Olympic team years in advance.

But the discussions go on in bars and forums and chatrooms and wherever else. Who’s Connor McDavid gonna play with? Will Leon Draisaitl get to go up against him? Maybe Chris Kreider will get a look at Igor Shesterkin in the knockout round. The rearranging of the best players in the world only happens in fans’ heads, and part of the magic of international competition is seeing it play out in real-time. Ask any soccer fan how many times they’ve designed, torn down, and redesigned a World Cup roster for either of the U.S. teams and the number will be in the hundreds. For the past month.

The WBC taking place during spring training comes without that, as any news before the tourney starts is about who’s not playing. That list will shrink in three years as more players see how this tournament is grown. But again, moving it to July instead of the All-Star game would give a whole new context to the first half of the season.

But now’s not the time to complain or point out some faults of a WBC edition that entertained us so. Ohtani vs. Trout is wrestling dream match booking, a gift to all baseball fans, and at such a moment it feels almost ordained. We may see it again when Ohtani is a Dodger in a year’s time, but there will be other matchups to dream of come the 2026 WBC.

The raw power of each, the threat of each are capable of that so few on the planet are also capable of. 101 MPH against a hitter liable to hit one to Narnia with any swing. It’s rare to see such opposing forces whose collision can rearrange particles. A real-life Alien vs. Predator. Usually, we only get this in October, and even then it’s kind of rare because it’s somewhere in a series. In a Game 7…almost never. Hard to even think of one. It’s why you can’t really copy what we got in the WBC in the MLB season or even playoffs.

Here’s a more exact measure of the density of this matchup:

There’s nothing wrong with letting fans dream about this stuff, and no less so every so often giving it to them. Rob Manfred would do well to remember that once in a while when he’s firebombing most things fans like about baseball.

Ilya Sorokin makes an incredible save

As long as we’re talking about joyful things, and that’s not usually an adjective that gets attached to the New York Islanders, here’s Ilya Sorokin bending reality to deny Erik Gustafsson a net so open it was ready to have its wisdom teeth out.

How much difference can it make to have a manager who is awake?

Pedro Grifol: Not 143 years old

How much tangible difference a manager makes on a baseball team over 162 games has never been quite nailed down. It’s generally thought the best ones might only add a couple wins, and a truly bad one might only take away a couple wins. Most are just there, which is kind of why front offices stopped really caring about hiring names. But what we might be answering for the first time this season is what happens to a team when you replace a manager who was asleep most of the time? It worked in A League of Their Own! Though that was just that manager waking up and paying attention.

That wasn’t an option for the Chicago White Sox and Tony La Russa, given that he’s 143 years old. So the Sox replaced him completely with Pedro Grifol, formerly the bench coach of the Kansas City Royals. What Grifol will be is anyone’s guess, but Sox fans will be relieved that he should know the rules and won’t do anything harebrained to prove his genius. At least they hope.

While intentionally walking guys with two strikes or not being clear how extra innings worked or having trouble remaining conscious (both in the dugout and behind the wheel) were the most poignant annoyances under La Russa’s reign of “huh?” his biggest transgression was that the Sox, night-in, night-out were just a structural mess. They didn’t do any of the stuff correctly that winning teams do. They couldn’t catch the ball, they didn’t take the extra base while teams were happy to run rampant on them, they didn’t always (or regularly) play hard, they took shitty at-bats in crucial situations, and they just made the same mistakes game after game.

And no one seemed to take responsibility for it. It was startling to see the same manager — whose ship in St. Louis was run so tightly that we all mocked it — preside over, or at least around, a team that was essentially one long grade school recess. He just let it happen. And no player seemed to take the reins either. While José Abreu was generally lauded for what he meant to his teammates, he was found wanting when it came time to cash in some checks on his teammates’ antics. It’s part of the reason the Sox were not too fussed about letting him walk to Houston in free agency.

Grifol might not run a military base or anything, but holding anyone up to any kind of standard would be a great improvement for the Southside club. Because even with a pretty ho-hum winter (and that’s being kind), the Sox remain the most talented team in the AL Central.

That won’t stop a lot of teeth-gnashing at Comiskey, because the Sox didn’t do much to fill in a giant hole at second, or in the outfield, or support their rotation should Lucas Giolito go wandering off to the zoo again and Michael Kopech exhibit Tom Glavine-like velocity without the Glavine-like control. Reports on that from Arizona aren’t encouraging. Or whatever support they did add in the rotation comes in the form of a possible bog monster.

Grifol won’t make the Sox a great defensive team because whatever innings they take the field with Eloy Jiménez in right field will be the definition of having a gasoline fight. Oscar Colas will probably be in the lineup before too long, until Eloy burns the whole park down. The infield isn’t as bad as advertised, with Elvis Andrus shifting over to second after subbing in for an injured Tim Anderson late in the year. Anderson has been a very good defensive shortstop as recently as 2021, and an average one as recently as last year. What you’ll get this year, spin the wheel!

At the plate, somehow, that’s even harder to decipher, given the reputation of most of these players. Anderson went from one of the league’s best contact hitters to being unable to hit the ball more than a foot and a half off the ground. They can’t keep Jimenez or Luis Robert on the field, and Jiménez is already having issues in spring training. No one’s sure what they’ll get from Yoán Moncada from year to year. Yasmani Grandal died. So adding merely Andrew Benintendi’s single-heavy attack or bringing back Andrus’ discovery of launch angle at age 33 isn’t exactly the most solid insurance for all those questions. Sure, there could be an absolutely lethal offense here if Anderson returns to form and the others stay healthy… but there could also not be if even some of those things don’t happen. This is a team that finished 19th in runs last year, after all. There’s only so much Grifol can do there other than pray for health.

As for the pitching, Dylan Cease might see a small flattening of his BABIP or left-on-base numbers, but will still be one of the best in the second-tier of top starters at worst, and a Cy Young candidate again at best. On the flip side, Giolito should see a bounce in the other way in those categories, and giving up more groundballs as he did last year should actually result in more outs than it did with more competence in the field, if the Sox find it. As far as Clevinger goes, he’s already provided far too much bullshit for a guy who pretty much sucks now and is four years removed from being any good.

It is simply unfortunate that Liam Hendriks has non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and what that means on the field means the absolute least as far as that. But the Sox should be ok, if not gangbusters, through a combo of Kendall Graveman, Aaron Bummer, and Reynaldo López before a move at the deadline, while Joe Kelly continues to chase every microphone and camera south of Roosevelt Rd.

Is that enough? If Grifol improves the Sox five games by merely being an actual presence as manager, that’s still not enough to match Cleveland’s 92 wins last year. And yet having an actual manager and getting most of everyone to perform to their career norms is probably enough to at least be in the discussion for the Central. With what the top three in the AL East look to be and the top two in the West look to be, wildcard spots may be hard to come by for the remedial class in the Central. We know the Tigers and Royals will be dog ass. The Guardians are depending on the development of a few young players for any improvement, or merely repeating last season. The Twins are running it back again with a sub-par rotation and far too much hinging on whether Byron Buxton can remain upright for more than a week at a time.

The Sox need more than just a manager boost and being told to act like a real live MLB team. Luckily for them, there’s enough there to provide that. 

Meaningless baseball continues to thrill millions

Shohei Ohtani celebrates after hitting a 9th-inning double

I think maybe what I might take most out of the World Baseball Classic is its insistence on portraying the entire scope of the best moments, what makes baseball the most artful game.

Sure, there are plenty of shots like this during the MLB regular season, but they don’t get this dramatic until October, and it’s a nice reminder. In other sports, the biggest moments are focused on one point. The last shot, the big goal, the touchdown. The action all crescendos to one spot. In baseball, there’s so much happening everywhere at once in a spot like this. There’s the initial thunderous contact at the plate, and then following the ball in its arc toward the outfield wall. There’s the centerfielder chasing down the ball off the wall. There’s Ohtani and Ukyo Shuto rounding the bases, as Munetaka Murakami rounds first while Mexico sets up for the relay across the whole length of the field, even as futile as this one was. The entire Japanese roster spilling out of the dugout and all turning into third-base coaches. The Mexican players already slowly walking off who are separate from the failing relay throws. It’s a mural of the best of baseball, the inverse actions of each team and yet all in harmony and rhythm, spread across a wide tableau.

There’s also this still image:

Image for article titled Meaningless baseball continues to thrill millions

Before all that action, the frantic last moments that combine to form one last piece from a memorable game, there’s this. Giovanny Gallegos knows it’s over, which is why the feeling goes out of his knees. There’s still much to be done, and things that could go wrong on either side, and yet Gallegos knows none of that is coming. His fate was decided with that decisive crack off Murakami’s bat. Nothing can be more decisive than that sound, cutting through the brief pause of the raucous crowd as a pitch is delivered.

None of this is complete without the Japanese call:

Boy, that sure sounds like it matters.

With the final being Japan-USA tonight, there’s little question it will be the most-watched baseball game, worldwide, in history. It has the potential to include Ohtani marching out of the bullpen like the Reaper to face Mike Trout in the late innings, but even should it not include that the drama will be pretty high, at least one hopes.

As more people tune in there are more people beseeching MLB to do this every year. But the rarity and desperation of it are what makes it so fun. The players care more because they don’t know how many more shots they’ll get at this, whether it’s the semi-pros (if that) of the Czechia or the stars or Japan or the US. Three years can be a long time in baseball. Even for them, the stars have to align.

I’m no less guilty than most others who spend baseball seasons lamenting what’s wrong with baseball. It has been so much fun to remember what’s so right, especially with the bonus of the baseball season beginning right after this. There is good in the sport, Mr. Frodo. It’s worth fighting for.

Go to the source

Yet another NHL team had to have an ado about their Pride Night and warmup jerseys this past weekend. This time it was the San Jose Sharks and goalie James Reimer. It was the same bullshit we’ve heard from others, though the Sharks put him on his own island to explain himself. Which is half the battle as they went ahead with the rest of their plans for Pride Night and every other player wore the jerseys. They still allowed Reimer to make his own statement which made the night more about him than the gestures the Sharks organization was making. And they still let him off the hook with the tame and predictable, “Respecting everyone’s beliefs” cop-out that other teams have reached for. That’s only true when someone’s beliefs are worth respecting, when bigotry never is.

But it’s probably best to just let an openly gay hockey player say it best, as Luke Prokop, a player in the Predators system, did last night:

What needs to be amplified are hockey’s attempts, however ham-handed and halfway they may be, to try to be welcoming. Merely sending Reimer home without comment while the Sharks released a statement that his views do not reflect the organization’s would have done that. Players like Reimer don’t deserve a platform of any kind. That at least would put the focus where it needs to be.

But hockey’s fetish of putting the team over all would probably never allow for that, which is why some teams have eschewed wearing Pride jerseys at all so as to cover for teammates who do not want to wear them (and it should be stated that some Russian players have declined fearing reprisal for them or their families back home in Russia). Even if Reimer was alone, he still got to try to save enough face to not feel ostracized by his team. Which is what he deserved.

Jackass Tournament: First-Round Results

Image for article titled Jackass Tournament: First-round results
Image for article titled Jackass Tournament: First-round results

New York fans probably disagree, but Brett Favre won this matchup easily, taking nearly 75 percent of the vote. There could be some recency bias with Favre having frequented the national news over the past 12 months for all his jackassery (accusations which he has repeatedly denied). Ultimately, this matchup wasn’t close, and just about everyone in or outside of NYC should’ve predicted this outcome.

Image for article titled Jackass Tournament: First-round results

These athletes have been attempting to out-jackass one another recently, with Aaron Rodgers coming out on top in the eye of the public. While they play different sports, one thing A-Rod and Ja Morant have in common is they’ve brought most of the negative attention to themselves. The biggest difference here is Rodgers has been jackassing around professionally much longer than Morant.

Image for article titled Jackass Tournament: First-round results

Even with Brandon Miller being involved in an ongoing investigation, Trevor Bauer took 80 percent of the votes in this first-round matchup. This entry was a no-brainer, especially after what transpired with Bauer and his suspension from MLB for sexual abuse. Although Bauer was reinstated by MLB in late 2022, he’ll be playing baseball in Japan for the foreseeable future.

Image for article titled Jackass Tournament: First-round results

Our first “upset” of the tournament is Antonio Brown coming away with the ‘W’ over Dana White in a bout that wasn’t too close. Brown finished with two-thirds of the votes advancing to the round of eight. AB has been in the news seemingly non-stop over the past couple of years for all the wrong reasons, including alleged sexual assault and exposing himself in public, among other things. White was recorded hitting his wife in a club and is generally known as an asshole. He was also heavily involved with Power Slap, which was terrible.

Is it finally time for the Toronto Blue Jays?

Kevin Kiermaier

Once the Toronto Maple Leafs get Andrei Vasilevskiy’d in the first round again, it’s not like the angst level in the T.O. will fade all that much through the summer months. That’s because the Toronto Blue Jays have reached the same threshold as the Leafs passed a few years ago, where you go from young and promising and exciting to what the fuck have you done? The Jays are loaded and still have Vlad Jr. and Bo Bichette, but they’re also still a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in seven years despite getting two cracks at expanded fields in 2020 and 2022. They’re still a playoff team, but can they overtake the Yankees and/or hold off the Rays this time around? Or are they going to be just part of the playoff field again?

There has been some surgery to the roster, though most of it would be described as clean-up more than reconstruction. The biggest benefit should be the outfield defense, which was only slightly below average last season but could be utterly smothering this season. Kevin Kiermaier was signed in free agency, which kicks George Springer over to right field. The biggest question is whether Kiermaier’s drop in defensive productivity (12 outs above average in 2021, 1 in 2022, 9.1 to 2.2 in defensive runs) was just a one-off or the marker of someone entering his age-33 season. Centerfield is a young man’s game, and Kiermaier is no longer that. Springer should see a boost from not having to cover center anymore though as he’s 33. On the other side, the Jays traded one of their three catchers (Gabriel Moreno, may be the most promising one) to get Daulton Varsho, who was one of the best right fielders in the NL last year and will be playing left now at Rogers Centre. Varsho’s bat started to catch up to his glove last year (106 wRC+) but even an ideal scenario at the plate has him matching Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s 112 wRC+. The glove will be the separator there though.

On the infield, Whit Merrifield will now be the second baseman for a full season, joining the usual crew of Matt Chapman, Bichette, and Vladito. Part of Merrifield’s charm the past few years was that he could play anywhere and at least not light himself on fire, whereas in Toronto this year he’ll be pretty much stuck at second. His offense has declined each of the last four years (he’s 34 now), with his power completely zapping. He went from 40 steals in 2021 to 16 last year. Maybe the new rules bounce that number back up along with his offensive contribution, but he looks more like scenery than most realize these days.

The starting rotation

When it comes to the rotation, there are some questions. It’s not that Alex Manoah is going to be bad, it’s just how much he can keep the ball in the ballpark once again to remain one of the league’s best starters, as he was last season. He was top-10 in HR/FB rate last season. If that’s what he is, then he can threaten to have a sub-3.00 ERA again. If that rises simply because sometimes it does as the baseball gods laugh at you, along with his decline in strikeouts last year, then he’s probably headed for deflation. Another question is if José Berrios can stop getting lit up like the Rockefeller Christmas tree this season. He went from the Twins’ ace to a 5.23 ERA and near whiplash from watching the loud contact he was giving up whiz by and over him every start. There didn’t seem to be any change in his stuff, be it velocity or movement, so one wonders about possible tipping. Seeing as how he just got lit up in the WBC as well, hesitation is widespread on expectations. Chris Bassitt as a No. 4 is a nice thing to have, but he’s also coming off a career-high in starts and innings with the Mets last year at age 34.

Bullpen woes?

Getting to closer Jordan Romano was an issue last year at times, and the capture of Erik Swanson for Teoscar Hernández was meant to address that. Swanson discovered more sweep on his slider a couple seasons ago and turned into a beast, striking out 34 percent of the hitters he saw last year. That doesn’t solve the bridge to Romano completely, though one name to keep an eye on is Yosver Zulueta. He struck out 82 hitters in 55 innings through four levels of the minors last year. No, he doesn’t have much idea where the ball is going (18.2 percent walk-rate), but if he can figure out how to keep his pitches even in the zip code he could be a major weapon out of the pen in the second half of the year.

In summation

Is it enough to take the AL East? With Carlos Rodon already on the shelf in the Bronx it sure feels like it’s just about the same Yankees team as last year, which was Aaron Judge and the Pips offensively at least. That still means 97 wins or more, and the Jays can get there if Berrios isn’t an arsonist and Merrifield bounces back some offensively among other small “ifs.” There is some Phillies possibility here, where the Jays could get into the playoffs comfortably behind the division winners, cull the bottom quarter of the roster, and have some guys go nuclear with the bat at the right time as Gausmann and Menoah followed by Swanson, Romano, and Zulueta out of the pen is enough to win a few rounds. There’s also some risk that Berrios never finds it, Menorah comes back to the pack a little, Merrifield and Kiermaier look every bit of the mid-30s players they are as the mileage starts to catch up to Springer too, and they’re scrambling to even get into the playoff field at all.

Maybe the Jays should hope the Leafs finally win a round just to make for a nice atmosphere around town.

No, Keith Olbermann, we should not ‘kill’ the WBC

Image for article titled No, Keith Olbermann, we should not 'kill' the WBC

If you ever wonder why much of the world views Americans as arrogant and uninterested in anything that happens outside the United States’ borders, look no further than Keith Olbermann’s recent tweets about the World Baseball Classic.

Last week, sports commentator Olbermann unleashed a barrage of tweets after New York Mets closer and member of Team Puerto Rico, Edwin Diaz, tore his patellar tendon in a post-game celebration. Olbermann demanded that the World Baseball Classic (WBC) be shut down because it’s “meaningless” and meant to get fans to buy more merch.

Olbermann later apologized for the blatant sexism in his original tweet, but has continued to call for the “killing” the WBC.

As a former national team athlete, there is no greater sense of pride than wearing the name of your country across your chest. The feeling of having the support of an entire nation just because of what’s written on your uniform is incomparable.

Why the World Baseball Classic matters

The WBC is the baseball equivalent of the World Cup or the Olympics. Taking place every four years (much like other international competitions), the World Baseball Classic has players — many of whom are professional players from around the world — playing for their home country, a privilege not often granted to professional baseball players. Originally sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation, the tournament is now under the purview of the World Baseball Softball Confederation in partnership with Major League Baseball.

International competition for professional athletes is often fairly criticized. Professional athletes are paid millions of dollars to dedicate their lives to a franchise — allowing them to participate in these seemingly frivolous additional tournaments poses a not insignificant risk to a team that has invested their money into the success of said athletes. While it doesn’t happen often, athletes do get injured. Sometimes not seriously, other times, season-ending seriously

The fact of the matter is that what happened to Edwin Diaz sucks, a lot. It sucks for the New York Mets, who’ve lost their closer for the season. It sucks for the Mets fans, who keep hoping that maybe this year will be the one (cute!). And it definitely sucks for Edwin Diaz. But, he knew the potential for risk, just like any other professional athlete who decides to participate in these events.

Believe it or not, playing baseball is a job

It’s easy to forget that these athletes are professionals, which means that showing up day-to-day and performing in front of millions of people is their job. While being able to be paid (and paid a lot) to do what you love is an immense privilege, it can also be a burden. International competitions, like the WBC, provide athletes with the ability to reconnect to the sports they love and excel at, and to find the joy in them again.

This is especially the case for athletes who aren’t from the United States. They get to play with people who understand them, their language, their culture. Maybe even people they played with growing up or earlier in their careers. For a couple of short weeks every four years, they get to re-live their youth and represent a country they had to move away from in order to live their dreams and, in some instances, support their families.

Who are we, the fans, to demand that the World Baseball Softball Confederation and Major League Baseball, the employer for many of the players of the WBC, end the tournament because of a relatively low risk of injury that could impact their professional season? Who are we to say that these players don’t deserve to have fun again playing the sport they love while representing their home country?

The WBC isn’t about the fans, it’s about the athletes. Diaz’s teammate on both Team Puerto Rico and the Mets, Francisco Lindor, said that the WBC means a lot to them. “I understand how Mets fans are hurting. But while for so many people the regular season is what counts, playing in the WBC means just as much to all of us,” Lindor said. I don’t blame them. Given the opportunity, I’d run sprints and do drills all day if it meant that I could wear my country emblazoned across my chest again.

I sure hope Keith Olbermann doesn’t have a USA t-shirt he wears on the fourth of July, what a scam to make people buy merch.

Erin Gee is the founder of d3crypto and the host of the forthcoming tech and culture podcast, Alt-Text. She played for the Canadian National Softball team.

Stop bitching about the World Baseball Classic

A fan runs on the field during the World Baseball Classic Semifinals between Team Cuba and Team USA at loanDepot park on March 19, 2023 in Miami, Florida.

We tend not to appreciate things that don’t matter as much to us as it does others. If there’s anything more American than “I got mine,” I don’t know what that would be. That seems to be the trouble with the World Baseball Classic, even though with every iteration it seems to pick up more steam. There are just those who will not care about the sights and sounds of fans and ex–pats and residents and players from other countries, who all seem to value this pretty highly. Maybe it’s because there are still a fair few American players who waved off the invitation. Or it could be that there’s this perception that the US should always stroll to the trophy, so winning brings no joy. So there is no happy outcome for the only fanbase that matters.

I don’t know, this looks like a guy and team that would be pretty damn happy to win the WBC. Same with those fans leaping with joy in the background:

The attention span of both fans and the news cycle don’t really let something like the WBC breathe. It needs to have edition after edition to matter (and for MLB to place it in the middle of the season when it would really matter, but we’ve had that talk). You know what else was thought of as a joke when it first started? The World Cup. Not so much anymore.

But the injuries

Do guys get hurt in spring training? All the time. Jose Altuve could have been facing some amped up kid trying to break camp with the big club for the first time, wearing #84, who rode a fastball in too high and tight. Altuve is lucky that he plays for the Astros, in a division like the AL West, where they’re still likely to absorb his loss and, at worst, mosey into the expanded playoffs even with him out for two months. Other players who teams’ fortunes hang on their presence alone would have been more greatly damaged.

But no one forced these guys. They all want to be here, and they all seem to be loving it. So are the fans. It’s still new, it’s still different, and it strikes during a time on the calendar when NBA and NHL playoff chases aren’t really a thing anymore and as the NCAA Tournament continues to serve up basketball that looks like it was belched up by some swamp creature that suddenly has a hole in it.

And again, it’s not for us, or us entirely. There’s a thrill that we probably can’t fully understand if you’re Dominican or Venezuelan and seeing your national team play. That it happens every four years keeps it rare but valuable.

The next time they roll this out, in 2027, more players will want to play, having watched even just USA-Venezuela and seeing those moments like Turner’s grand slam. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? To call it fake or made-up or worthless is to be a curmudgeon for the sake of it. The thought of Shohei Ohtani rolling out in the final out of the pen to perhaps preserve the tournament for the Japanese? How metal is that? Why does anyone feel the need to keep moments like that exclusive to just what we’ve always known before?

If anything it’s proven how fun baseball can be if we stop treating it like we always have. If we allow others to enjoy it in their way. Players get hurt for all sorts of reasons, and if one player missing a couple weeks or even months means you miss out on the pretty wide target of a wildcard berth these days…build a fucking better team. That must mean you aimed for 87 wins. Get outta here with that. No one should feel sorry for you.

It might not be for you, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be for someone else.

The best of the rest

Gonna rip through a few things here:

  • I could watch the slo-mo of this Thiago Almada freekick all day with some mood lighting and just the right “spice.”

You should probably catch Almada now while you can, because some European team might lavish Atlanta with some $30-35 million to take him off their hands this summer.

  • Mom, you’re supposed to be the bedrock of the family:
  • Carlos Alcaraz is back to eat the world.

After missing the Australian Open due to injury, Alcaraz strutted into Indian Wells–perhaps the tour’s leading tournament beneath the four majors–and won it without dropping a set to reclaim the #1 ranking in the world. He pretty much regurgitated Daniel Medvedev, who had won 20 straight matches on hardcourt and is considered the leading hardcourt player in the world. At least he was until Alcaraz turned him into foodstuffs, 6-3 6-2.

There is nothing Alcaraz can’t do on the court, and this point in the semifinal against Jannik Sinner shows you why at the age of 20, he has the tennis world thudding various floors with its jaw:

What shot didn’t he hit in that point? If it were anything but sport we would say no child should be given such power, for it is too heavy to wield. Alcaraz is taking it and dunking on everyone again.

Keith Olbermann has a scorching bad take on the World Baseball Classic

Just stop it, man.

When there’s a way to have a trash take on sports, enter Keith Olbermann. This time, it’s about the World Baseball Classic, because what matters most to Mr. Olbermann is the Major League Baseball season, as the yearly league is much more important to those who don’t see value in the global tournament. Odd flex, but OK.

His first message of the day talks about how the tournament is a waste and he uses the line that rosters are chosen “based on where their grandmothers got laid.” You need two of those, so what happens if your maternal and paternal relatives are from different countries? Saying something from the language of dumbassery brought out people from most corners of the internet to tell Olbermann how stupid he sounded! But of course, he couldn’t totally backtrack on his statement, right? Look at his Twitter ratio 14 hours after the message was sent of 67 retweets and 2,043 quote tweets. Ouch.

Only half a day after sending the message in the middle of the night did Olbermann have any sort of revision to his sexist remark about sex, changing it to “where their ancestors got laid.” He also added, “That blunt description of the artificiality of the team assignments is also trivial and for that I apologize.” Olbermann then doubles down on saying the WBC is a threat to what actually counts in the Major League Baseball season. Gosh, what a goober. Let’s take Team Israel, shall we? The Swingin’ Stars of David are made up mostly of American and Jewish professional baseball players hoping to raise the profile of the sport in the Middle Eastern country, regardless of whether any of their ancestors got freaky in Tel Aviv.

This is also the first World Baseball Classic in six years, giving players from countries a needed global spotlight. The next one isn’t until 2026, so we’ll all be saved from preseason injuries in the next two years. What happened to Edwin Diaz was avoidable and an accident in a moment of jubilation. But let’s take down the whole tournament. Especially because of a perverted stance on how teams are drawn? Piss off, Olbermann.