PHOENIX ― It’s time to break out the sunscreen, put the burgers on the grill and make sweeping judgements while celebrating the first milestone on the baseball calendar.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, when we can no longer say it’s early and in the poignant words of Yogi Berra, it’s getting late in a hurry.
Let’s look at what transpired this first one-third of the season, leaving two months for teams to put their cards on the table, deciding who’s in, who’s out, and who’s already planning for 2024.
Here’s what we know, what we don’t know, and what leaves us confused.
Teams who should start making hotel reservations
Tampa Bay Rays: After their sensational 20-3 start, have fallen back to earth a bit, but still are baseball’s finest team. They have the second-worst bullpen in the league, and have already lost two starters, but they had Tyler Glasnow returning Saturday to join Shane McClanahan as the best 1-2 punch in the American League. They can go .500 and still win 92 games. They will win the AL East.
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Los Angeles Dodgers: They stayed out of the deep end of the free-agent pool, decided to go with homegrown kids, and still are the class of the NL West. They scout and develop their players better than any team in baseball. They have five pitchers at Class AA who will be impact starters one day in the big leagues. They will win the NL West for the ninth time in 10 years.
Atlanta: They can let MVP Freddie Freeman walk, part ways with All-Star Dansby Swanson, and not blink. Now, would they be better off with those two players still in the lineup. Absolutely, making them almost unstoppable. Their bullpen is struggling, ranking 24th in baseball with a 4.86 ERA. No matter, they will win their sixth consecutive NL East title.
New York Yankees: Remember when everyone was calling for the head of manager Aaron Boone and GM Brian Cashman. Funny what the return of Aaron Judge can do for a team’s fate. They may be flawed, but they are still the powerful Yankees. It may be the 14th consecutive year without a World Series berth, but they’ll be playing in October.
Houston Astros: They could have been dead and buried with the loss of All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve for two months, are still without Michael Brantley, and have been without three of their prized starters. Well, future Hall of Fame manager Dusty Baker made sure they stayed afloat, the bullpen has been lights out, and they’re still one of the most powerful teams in baseball. The Texas Rangers may be in first place in the AL West, but the defending World Series champions are still the team to beat.
Not who we thought they were
San Diego Padres: They bought every free agent they could find, and even out-bid everyone for Aaron Judge and Trea Turner, but this $249 million collection of talent has been a mess. They are just 24-28 record. Hard to believe they have nearly the same record as the Washington Nationals (23-29).
New York Mets: The owner went out and spent a record $353.5 million on their payroll to achieve nothing more than mediocrity. And it could get worse. They have a brutal schedule beginning Tuesday where they won’t play a non-contender again until after the All-Star break.
Toronto Blue Jays: They have the most talent on paper in the AL East. But on real paper, they have the worst record in AL East. It’s a bad sign when they have more team meetings than victories this past week.
Philadelphia Phillies: They were in the World Series a year ago, added $300 million man Trea Turner, and were talking about winning multiple World Series titles this spring. The Phillies, 25-27. have huge concerns with their pitching woes.
St. Louis Cardinals: Ok, they were never as bad as their 10-24 record indicated, and they are residing in the downtrodden NL Central, but still they’ve got a lot of work to do and pitchers to fix before they can entertain thoughts of another division title.
They paid you what?
Jose Abreu, Houston Astros: Two months into his three-year, $58.5 million contract, and the Astros are wondering what they got themselves into. Abreu is hitting .217 with a gruesome .534 OPS, and still has not hit a home run. He has 41 hits, 34 singles and seven doubles.
2023 MLB SALARIES:Database of every player on the opening day roster
Carlos Correa, Minnesota Twins: Correa signed three free-agent contracts during the winter, going from a 13-year, $350 million deal with the San Francisco Giants to a 12-year, $315 million deal with the New York Mets to a six-year, $200 million contract with the Twins. He has found a home in Minnesota, but it’s been an ugly homecoming, hitting just .215 with a .705 OPS and has been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis.
Carlos Rodon, New York Yankees: The Yankees knew he was injury-prone when they signed him to a 6-year, $162 million contract, but didn’t expect him to miss the first half of the season with absolutely no timetable on a return.
Trea Turner, Philadelphia Phillies: There’s no way his career-worst slump should last (.248. .293 on-base percentage, .390 slugging percentage), but you know things are going bad when Turner’s own Mom says she has been booing him along with the rest of the Phillies’ fans. She was kidding. We think.
Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners and Michael Harris, Atlanta: Remember when everyone thought Rodriguez and Harris cost themselves hundreds of millions when they signed their long-term extensions in their rookie year? Well, Rodriguez is hitting .238 with a .727 OPS and Harris is hitting .177 with a .540 OPS.
Biggest surprises, teams
Baltimore Orioles: Remember when they were baseball’s laughing stock two years ago when they lost 110 games? Look who’s laughing now? The Orioles are a legitimate power. “They’re really good,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said this week, “I mean, they’re a really good team.’’
Texas Rangers: They lose All-Star shortstop Corey Seager for a month, Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom hasn’t pitched since April 28, and they are pummelling teams, scoring a major-league leading 327 runs, and outscoring the opposition by 124 runs. They have routed teams so often that seven times the opposition has resorted to the embarrassment of using a position player pitch in a blowout. They have scored double-digit runs in 26% of their games this season.
Arizona Diamondbacks: They have the cheapest payroll and the youngest team in the NL West, but also have the third-best record in the National League. If they get another veteran starter and strengthen their bullpen, they could scare the daylights out of the Dodgers. Then again, maybe they already are, sitting 2 ½ games out of first place
Pittsburgh Pirates: No one expected these guys to play at their sizzling pace when they jumped to a 20-8 record, but even with reality sinking in, they still have a winning record.
Miami Marlins: They actually have a better record than the Padre, Phillies and Cardinals. Really.
Biggest surprises, players
Yennier Cano, Baltimore Orioles: He had a career 9.22 ERA when he was traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Orioles last summer, and opened the year in the minors. And right now is the most dominant pitcher in baseball, 0.68 ERA, 0.45 WHIP, walking just one of the 89 batters he has faced this season in 26 2/3 innings this year.
Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners: He has gone from a prized prospects to a bust to perhaps an All-Star in two years. He spent the past two years playing in the Futures Game during All-Star weekend. This time, he could be playing in the actual All-Star Game in Seattle, out-playing All-Star teammate Julio Rodriguez, hitting .277 with a team-leading 10 homers, 25 RBI and a .852 OPS.
Yandy Diaz, Tampa Bay Rays: Diaz, who has never hit more than 14 homers in a season, already has homered 12 times this season, two more than all of last season, with an MLB-leading 1.048 OPS. He looks like an absolute steal with the Rays signing a three-year, $24 million contract extension. You think the Guardians wish they had hung onto him.
Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates: It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who entered the season with a 12-29 record and 4.99 ERA. This year, he’s pitching his way to the All-Star Game with a 6-1 record and 3.01 ERA, striking out 85 batters with 16 walks in 68 2/3 innings. He became the first Pirates pitcher in history to strike out at least 13 batters without issuing a walk or permitting a run since at least 1920.
Michael Wacha, San Diego Padres: He went 11-2 with a 3.32 ERA, and apparently every club thought it was a fluke, with no one signing him until spring training when the Padres gave him a four-year, $26 million contract. Well, he sure is having a fine encore, going 5-1 with a 3.58 ERA, and dominating in May with a 3-0 record and 0.36 ERA.
San Francisco Giants: They should triple the salary of their doctors who advised them NOT to give Correa that 13-year, $350 million contract when they saw the MRI exams on his surgically repaired right ankle.
New York Mets: They should double the salary of their doctors who advised them NOT to give Correa a 12-year, $315 million contract.
Texas Rangers: Bruce Bochy didn’t have a single job interview after he stepped down from the Giants after the 2019 season, wondering if he had managed his last game. Rangers GM Chris Young picked up the phone, travelled to Bochy’s Nashville home, and convinced Bochy he should come to Texas. It has changed the entire fate of the franchise.
Atlanta: They kept bluffing, saying they weren’t in the sweepstakes for Oakland catcher Sean Murphy, and then stole him in front of everyone’s eyes, when the Cleveland Guardians believed they would land him. Murphy is proving to be perhaps the best catcher in the game, hitting .280 with 11 homers, 37 RBI and .964 OPS, to go along with his superb defensive skills. Oh, and Atlanta was able to lock him up too, signing him to a 6-year, $73 million extension.
Arizona Diamondbacks: They knew they had too many outfielders, and believed that Daulton Varsho would never have a higher value. They found the perfect trade partner with the Toronto Blue Jays, bringing back prized catching prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel. Well, Moreno has become their everyday catcher, hitting .302 while playing superb defense. Gurriel has been their most productive hitter, batting .316 with a .930 OPS. Varsho, meanwhile, is hitting just .210 with a .652 OPS.
Top trade candidates
Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers would love to have their Cy Young winner anchoring the rotation for another 10 years, but after their arbitration hearing got nasty, Burnes has every intention of hitting the open market as a free agent after the 2024 season. It would be crazy for the Brewers to trade him, but then again, so was trading All-Star closer Josh Hader last year.
Tim Anderson, Chicago White Sox: The White Sox don’t want to trade him, and have him under contract for one more year. Yet, if they get a return that could help them immediately, as well as in the future, they may have no choice to part with the face of their franchise.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Detroit Tigers: The Tigers’ ace is just in the second year of his five-year, $77 million contract and has been dominant. The trouble is that he’s pitching so well that he is expected to exercise the opt-out in his contract after this season, and the Tigers don’t want him walking out the door without getting a parting gift.
Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox: The White Sox have no current plans to keep their starter once he hits free agency, so if they are out of the race, he could bring back prospects to load their farm system.
Tyler O’Neill, St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals don’t need him, have lost patience with him, and sure could use a starting pitcher for the second half. He will be shopped as soon as he gets off the injured list.
Around the basepaths
➤ Brewers manager Craig Counsell still is undecided about his future, but several of his friends believe he’ll step down after the season. Counsell has not had any contract talks with the team at his request.
If Counsell departs, he would be the hottest managerial free-agent in the business the moment he decides to return.
➤ MLB will not implement an electronic strike zone in 2024, officials say, but will seriously consider using their automated system as early as 2025.
➤ The Padres, who already are losing money with their $249 million payroll, could be taking a huge financial hit if Diamond Sports walks away from their contract that pays the Padres $60 million a year. They have already missed a payment.
➤ Now that the A’s are likely headed to Las Vegas, the top five expansion sites are: Nashville, Montreal, Oakland, Salt Lake City and Orlando, Fla.
➤ While the White Sox could have plenty of players on the move at the trade deadline, they definitely plan on keeping closer Liam Hendriks, who could make his season debut this week after recovering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
➤ Red Sox closer Kenley Jansen says that he nearly signed with the Giants during the winter, but acknowledged that it might have been tough going to the Dodgers’ bitter rivals.
➤ Rays owner Stu Sternberg has no intention of selling his team, but officials in Orlando are clamoring for the franchise to be relocated to their city.
➤ You think the Red Sox wish they had the decision back to let Nathan Eovaldi walk, signing a two-year, $34 million with Texas while the Red Sox instead signed Corey Kluber. Eovaldi is a Cy Young candidate with his 6-2 with a 2.60 ERA, including two complete games in his first 10 starts. Kluber is 2-6 with a 6.26 ERA and has been relegated to the bullpen.
➤ How awful are the A’s?
They’re making the ’62 Mets look like the ’27 Yankees. The Mets yielded an average of 5.9 runs a game during that horrid 40-120 season. The A’s are allowing 8.9 runs a game.
This is the worst start by any team this late in a season since the 1904 Washington Senators.
“I feel so terrible for [manager] Mark Kotsay,’’ one NL executive said. “It’s like going into a gun fight with a butter knife with that team.’’
The A’s, 10-44, are on pace to go 30-132, which would be the worst record since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134).
➤ The Orioles made a shrewd signing in Kyle Gibson, who’s yielding a 2.52 ERA against the rest of the AL East this season, becoming the first Orioles pitcher to throw at least seven shutout innings against the Yankees since Kevin Gausman in 2016.
➤ Oh, to be in the AL Central or NL Central, which could have a sub-.500 team winning the division and making the postseason for the first time in a full season in history.
The Minnesota Twins (27-25) are the lone team with a winning record in the AL Central and the Milwaukee Brewers lead the NL Central with a modest 27-25 record.
➤ The Guardians, loaded with starting pitching, realize they will have to move at least one of their young prized pitchers to find some help for their anemic offense. They are averaging a major-league low 3.5 runs a game, and have hit just 30 homers this season, eight fewer than any other team, and not even one-third of the Rays’ 99 total.
➤ The uniform patches have turned out to be a huge revenue source for teams with the Mets earning about $20 million a year while the Red Sox receive $17 million annually.
The Yankees still don’t have a uniform patch deal, seeking about $25 million annually.
➤ Keep an eye on White Sox veteran reliever Joe Kelly. He is pitching the best he has in years, and teams could have him for two pennant aces considering he has a club option in 2024 for $9.5 million or a $1 million buyout.
➤ It’s absurd for anyone to believe that the Brewers could leave Milwaukee is the state doesn’t approve a plan to finance $448 million of renovations at their ballpark, American Family Field. Their lease expires after the 2030 season. The Brewers have drawn more than two million fans in 17 consecutive years, with the exception of 2020-2021 because of Covid, including three years in excess of three million.
This franchise isn’t going anywhere.
➤ Dodgers ace Julio Urias, who is on the injured list with a hamstring strain, may not return for another two to three weeks to make sure it’s completely healed. He knows that if he returns early, and his performance suffers, it could greatly damage his free-agent market.
Urias is just 5-4 with a 4.39 ERA in 10 starts, giving up a major-league leading 14 homers.
➤ Several MLB executives are perplexed why the Mets haven’t signed All-Star first baseman Pete Alonso to a contract extension. He leads all of baseball with 19 homers and is a free agent after the 2024 season.
➤ Catcher Gary Sanchez’s stay with the Mets lasted all of three games. He was paid about $350,000 for each day worked with his $1.5 million prorated salary becoming guaranteed once he was called up.
➤ It’s crazy that Yankees manager Aaron Boone has already been ejected four times this season, including three times in 10 games. He has now been ejected 30 times in 760 games.
He is four ejections shy from tying Mets manager Buck Showalter, who has managed 3,281 games.,
➤ The Padres have figured out the magical formula to win ballgames.
They are 22-2 when scoring four or more runs, and 2-25 when they don’t.
➤ Steven Matz has made 20 starts since signing a four-year, $44 million free-agent contract with the Cardinals.
Just two have been quality starts.
He currently is 0-6 with a 5.72 ERA.
His last victory was July 23, 2022.
➤ Teams missed out on Zach Eflin, who signed a reasonable 3-year, $40 million contract with the Rays this winter. He is 7-1 with a 3.17 ERA, pitching at least five innings in every one of his nine starts.
➤ Just when you wondered what Aaron Judge would do for an encore, he has hit 14 home runs, with nine of them tying the game or giving the Yankees a lead.
The Yankees are 154-50 (.755) in games that Judge homers, including 10-1 this season.
➤ Yankees starter Luis Severino didn’t hide his feelings on the automated strikezone that was used during his minor-league rehab start:
“It sucks,” Severino told reporters. “Hopefully it won’t be here for seven or eight [years] and I’ll be in my house, retired.’’
➤ Can you imagine if the Red Sox had hung onto their starting pitchers instead of letting them depart?
- Martin Perez: 5-1, 4.01 ERA.
- Nathan Eovaldi, 6-2, 2.60 ERA.
- Eduardo Rodriguez, 4-3, 2.06 ERA.
- Michael Wacha 5-1, 3.45 ERA.
- Rich Hill, 4-4, 4.27 ERA
➤ That was Brewers starter Adrian Houser shutting down his former Astros team last week, the only Brewers player left from the six-player trade between the Astros and Brewers in July 2015, sending Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to the Astros.
Gomez was released the following season in Houston, and Fiers was on their 2017 World Series championship team, but became infamous when he was the lone whistle-blower who revealed the Astros’ cheating scandal.
In the Astros’ game notes, the trade was mentioned, but it simply said that the deal “netted the Astros OF Carlos Gomez,” without mentioning Fiers.
➤ Atlanta is being rewarded for not panicking and releasing Marcel Ozuna in April.
He had five hits in April, batting .085 with a .397 OPS.
He has eight homers in May, batting .306 with a 1.226 OPS.
➤ So, with Cubs slugger Christopher Morel hitting nine home runs with 15 RBI in his first 12 games, with only Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt hitting homers homers that quickly in a season, it was natural to ask Cubs president Jed Hoyer if they made a mistake by keeping him at Triple-A Iowa, where he hit 11 homers in 29 games.
“Certainly you can look at it and say, “‘Boy, I wish we had those home runs at Iowa here,’” Hoyer told reporters. “Or you could say the reason he hit those home runs here was because he got on a roll in Iowa, getting comfortable and playing every day.”
We will never know for sure, or will we?
➤ The Padres are badly looking for catching help with Austin Nola proving not to be the answer after being acquired from the Mariners in August, 2020, for Ty France, Andres Munoz, Taylor Trammell and Luis Torrens. It was a trade that has gone horribly bad with Nola hitting just .135 with one homer, seven RBI and a hideous .447 OPS.
➤ Remember when Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson hit three homers and drove in eight runs in his first game of the season? Well, he hasn’t gotten a hit since April 17, going 0-for-38, the longest drought by a non-pitcher in Dodgers’ history. He is batting .109 while striking out in 43.6% of his plate appearances. The Dodgers are trying to stay patient, but time is running short.
➤ How nerve-wracking has the Orioles’ season been so far? They have played only five games that have been decided by more than four runs, and have a .636 winning percentage in those games. They’ve relied heavily on their bullpen with six relievers already pitching in at least 20 games.
➤ Welcome back, Mickey Moniak, the first pick in the 2016 draft, who was called up and sent down 13 times with the Phillies, and finally has found a home with the Angels, hitting .419 with a 1.373 OPS in 10 games.
➤ The last time Andres Gimenez started this slow, he was optioned to Triple-A Columbus back in 2021, but this time around, he has a fat seven-year, $106.5 million contract extension and isn’t going anywhere. He has a slash line of .234/.308/.341 with three homers and nine RBI after making the All-Star team a year ago and finishing sixth in the MVP voting.
➤ The Cardinals and Royals have an odd quirk in their schedule in which they have consecutive off-days on Wednesday and Thursday this week after their two-game series in St. Louis.
➤ The Reds have no intention of trading closer Alexis Diaz, but man, could they ever get a haul in return. Diaz has been sensational this season, striking out 35 of the 72 batters he’s faced with a 16.9 strikeout per nine innings rate, and yielding a 0.98 batting average and 1.93 ERA.
➤ The Blue Jays are the last team to use just five starting pitchers so far this season.
➤ The A’s may stink, but they could have an AL Rookie of the Year winner in Esteury Ruiz, their dynamic center fielder who leads the major leagues with 27 stolen bases and is on pace for 83, while hitting .274. He actually has been hit by more pitches (11) this season than walks (eight).
The last player to steal 80 bases in a season?
Vince Coleman in 1988 for the Cardinals with 82 bags.
➤ Pretty wild that two former Atlanta closers would each get their 400th career saves pitching in Atlanta, with Phillies’ Craig Kimbrel on Friday and Red Sox’s Kenley Jansen a week ago.
“That’s crazy, right?’’ Jansen says.
➤ Marlins starter Jesus Luzardo needs to order a limo for teammate Jorge Soler every time he pitches this season.
Soler is hitting .467 with eight homers in Luzardo’s 11 starts this year.
➤ The baseball world mourned the death of beloved Hall of Fame writer Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who was one of the most brilliant baseball strategists I’ve known. He would have been a brilliant bench coach.
I told him that several times.
And for the first time, I told him I loved him when he told me two weeks ago he had a fight on his hands.
It was an honor and privilege to be friends with the man.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale