The trade deadline has passed. August is here. Eleven American League teams are either in a playoff spot or within 3-1/2 games. Man, we learned a lot this week.
1. Mets: From laughingstock to division leader in a week. How to capture this stretch in Flushing? Wilmer Flores was crying, then he was hitting a walk-off homer against the Nationals. The Mets had a deal in place to bring center fielder Carlos Gomez from Milwaukee, had it fall apart because of their own concerns about Gomez’s hip — but then ended up with what might be a better trade by landing Yoenis Cespedes from Detroit. With that last flurry before Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, General Manager Sandy Alderson went from the most wanted man in Queens to someone who might not have to buy a beer there for a while. And that was before New York went out and swept the Nationals to tie for first in the NL East. The last win came before a raucous Sunday-night crowd at CitiField and was saved by former Nat Tyler Clippard. As August begins, there’s a race in the NL East, and the Mets have forced the issue.
2. Toronto, scene of tense-and-taut playoff preview? The Royals and the Blue Jays each needed a front-of-the-rotation starter before the deadline. Each GM delivered: Kansas City’s Dayton Moore snared right-hander Johnny Cueto from the Reds and Tortonto’s Alex Anthopoulos grabbed lefty David Price from the Tigers. Both will be free agents at the end of the season, and thus both become symbols of their new teams’ intention to go for it now. Wouldn’t you know those two teams squared off in a three-game series beginning Friday night, when Cueto made his Royals debut with seven innings of three-run ball in a no-decision in what became a walk-off win for the Blue Jays. The Royals came back to cling to a 7-6 victory on Saturday, when recent addition Ben Zobrist homered twice and closer Greg Holland got Josh Donaldson for the final out and with the tying run at third. Then Sunday, the benches cleared after Royals starter Edinson Volquez hit Donaldson, an MVP candidate, once and threw inside on him again. Blue Jays reliever Aaron Sanchez was later ejected for plunking Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. “He’s crying like a baby,” Volquez said of Donaldson. The entire affair felt like the postseason, and after a busy week of trades for both teams, it’s not absurd to think it could be.
3. The Yankees may not have made moves, but look at the standings. Toronto certainly drew the attention with the additions of Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki – not to mention relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe – and the easy read was that the AL East race was reinvented. But the standings Monday morning show New York with a six-game lead over both Baltimore and Toronto. The Yankees led all of baseball with an .817 OPS in July. The rotation has been buoyed by the return of Ivan Nova, who overcame arm fatigue in his start Monday against Texas to come back and beat the White Sox Sunday, his third straight victory. They still have the devastating back end of the bullpen in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, their strength all season. And as August begins, they still have to be considered the favorites in the division.
4. Cole Hamels provided a blueprint on how to leave town. The trade of the veteran lefty, the MVP of the 2008 World Series, was a necessary step in the Phillies’ tear-down. Philadelphia did well to get a package of prospects from Texas. But you don’t just walk out on a decade in a city – especially a city as passionate about sports as Philadelphia, the only city in which Hamels had played – without a proper goodbye. Hamels, thus, gave a virtuoso performance at his farewell press conference. He spoke from the heart about understanding what the Phillies, and what winning a championship, meant to Philadelphia, about learning about the city, about starting his family there and always having ties there. He took out a full-page ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer to say goodbye. And thus, he all but ensured he’ll be welcomed back in whatever uniform.
5. A.J. Burnett expects the worst news at the doctor, and the Pirates’ chances take a hit. Pittsburgh’s veteran right-hander, an all-star for the first time this year, went on the disabled list last week with elbow discomfort. But this, according to Burnett, isn’t something he expects to just work through. He has a checkup Monday, but he told MLB.com he knows the outcome, either a torn ulnar collateral ligament or flexor tendon. “I’m prepared for both,” he said. Either of those injuries could not only end Burnett’s season, but his 18-year career. Though the Pirates have put pressure on the NL Central-leading Cardinals, the loss of Burnett – who provided a superior 1-2-3 top of the rotation with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano – could be devastating. The replacement: likely veteran Joe Blanton, who was designated for assignment by the Royals to make room for Cueto.
6. The Angels don’t appear ready for prime time. When the Angels snuck up on and then passed the Astros at the all-star break, they seemed ready to ruin one of baseball’s best first-half stories. But last week, they went to Houston and got swept by one likely playoff team, then returned to SoCal – to Dodger Stadium – and got swept by another, a sweep that ended with Andre Ethier’s walk-off homer Sunday. The Angels, thus, have lost six in a row and nine of 10. Now, veteran lefty C.J. Wilson is on the disabled list and said he expects to have elbow surgery that would end his season. But Wilson apparently only chose this course after pursuing a diagnosis on his own, and MLB.com reported that several teammates believed Wilson should pitch through the issue. Whatever the case, this only represents further dysfunction for an organization that already had its general manager (Jerry DiPoto) resign following a power struggle with its manager (Mike Scioscia).
7. Wither the Twins? Minnesota, with St. Paul native Paul Molitor as its first-year manager, has been one of the sport’s best stories over the season’s first four months. The Twins have a nice core around all-star second baseman Brian Dozier and closer Glenn Perkins, with third baseman Miguel Sano impressing in his first month in the majors. But at the trade deadline, all the Twins could manage was a deal for Tampa Bay reliever Kevin Jepsen – not nothing, but not much. Others in pursuit of the AL wild-card spots – Toronto and Baltimore (with outfielder Gerardo Parra), specifically – did more. Is there a team currently in playoff position who would be a better bet to not make the playoffs?
8. The Padres are baseball’s most confusing team. It’s been a full weekend, and San Diego’s trade inactivity still seems – well, odd. Never mind that Padres GM A.J. Preller held onto closer Craig Kimbrel and right-hander James Shields. Both those players are under contract at least through 2017 and could be part of a winner in the future. But outfielder Justin Upton? Reliever Joaquin Benoit? Both those players can be free agents at the end of this season, and either could have helped restock a depleted San Diego farm system. Even after taking two of three from Miami over the weekend, the Padres are three games under .500 and 6-1/2 games out of a wild-card spot. Is a gamble that Upton and Benoit will contribute to a run over the final two months worth it?
9. There’s transition in Boston. Though the Red Sox didn’t do much to overhaul their roster at the deadline – trading outfielder Shane Victorino to the Angels doesn’t amount to an overhaul – another last-place season in Boston has resulted in a shift. Longtime CEO Larry Lucchino will step down, ceding to up-and-coming executive Sam Kennedy. Lucchino, who also helped build organizations in Baltimore and San Diego, had a diminished role in the construction of this year’s team. But every Red Sox development bears watching these days. Given the team’s terrible season, with each major acquisition – Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Rick Porcello – disappointing thus far, it’s fair to question the future of GM Ben Cherington and Manager John Farrell. With Lucchino out of the picture, and with Kennedy expected to be removed from baseball decisions, owner John Henry now may be charged with determining the inner workings of his team.