Bill Madden: Aaron Judge, Albert Pujols giving fans something to cheer for even as MLB strikes out

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			Bill Madden: Aaron Judge, Albert Pujols giving fans something to cheer for even as MLB strikes out
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Years ago, a wise person once said: “Baseball is the greatest game of all in spite of the people who run it.”

This has never been truer than this weekend when, despite Rob Manfred’s Apple streaming MLB greed grab that deprived most of the country from TV viewership Friday night, Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols calmly went about their business of cleansing baseball’s soul from the steroids plague which previous commissioner Bud Selig took too long to get a handle on.

Suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly, baseball has found itself with a season of celebration of not one but two “clean” sluggers closing in on home run milestones — Judge breaking Roger Maris’ 61-year-old American League record of 61 homers and Pujols becoming only the fourth player in history with 700 career homers.

And wouldn’t you know, Pujols hit his two homers Friday night to join the exclusive club in the Cardinals’ game that was also exclusively Apple-streamed — so hardly anyone witnessed it unless you were in the ballpark. Shame on baseball.

While Pujols’ feat will be his last hurrah as he heads into retirement, Judge is potentially looking at becoming the highest paid position player in the game after not only breaking Maris’ record but putting together one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Going into the weekend, he led the AL in batting and the majors in homers, RBI, runs, OBP, slugging, OPS and total bases. His 60 homers being 20 more than runner-up Kyle Schwarber of the Phillies.

Putting that in perspective with some of the other greatest seasons since World War II:

In Frank Robinson’s 1966 AL MVP year for the Orioles, he won the Triple Crown (.316/49 HR/122 RBI) and also led the league in runs (122), OBP (.410), slugging (.637) and OPS (1.047). But Mickey Mantle’s 1956 Triple Crown MVP year was even better as he led the majors in batting (.353), homers (52), RBI (130), runs (132), slugging (.705), OPS (1.169) and total bases (376). In 1949, Ted Williams won his second AL MVP award with a monster season in which he hit .343 and led the AL in homers (43), RBI (159), runs (150), OBP (.490), slugging (.650), OPS (1.141) and total bases (368).

There is no question Judge’s historical season in which he bet on himself has earned him a substantial increase from the seven-year/$213.5 million ($30.5M AAV) he turned down from the Yankees back in April. The question is how substantial? Judge, in so many words, told the Yankees he felt he should be paid commensurate to Mike Trout’s major league high $35.54 million AAV for position players. At this point, that’s probably not going to be a problem for the Yankees, so the battle is going to come down to the number of years.

For it doesn’t matter how many homers Judge winds up hitting, he will still be a 31-year-old player next year and, as the Yankees (and all the other clubs as well) are fully aware of, contracts of eight or more years to players 31 or older are doomed to ill fortune — the two classic examples being Miguel Cabrera’s eight-year/$248 million signed with the Tigers in 2016 and Pujols’ $10-year/$240 million with the Angels in 2011.

Cabrera, who never again hit over .300 or drove in more than 75 runs after 2016, is staggering to the finish line. Pujols, a .328 lifetime hitter when he defected from the Cardinals to Angels in 2012, never again hit .300, his career average having fallen to .296, and had only three 100-RBI seasons in his nine years with the Angels.

More than likely, given the analytic philosophy throughout baseball about long-term contracts to players in their 30s, the Yankees will be bidding against themselves for Judge. The teams that can afford to go toe-to-toe with them either have expensive free agents of their own they need to re-sign (Dodgers and Trea Turner, Red Sox and Xander Bogaerts) or, in the case of the Giants and Cubs, have too many other holes to fill than to tie up $37 million of payroll on one player in his 30s.

My guess is the Yankees re-sign Judge for somewhere between $260-$300 million, depending on the years — while resigned to the fact it will very likely wind up being the worst contract they ever gave a player.

IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD

The Royals firing of President of Baseball Operations Dayton Moore, one of the most respected execs in the industry, sent shockwaves through the game last week, especially when combined with owner John Sherman’s decision to replace him with his top assistant and longtime ally GM J.J. Picollo. As one longtime scout and friend to both of them told me Thursday: “I don’t really understand this. Dayton hired J.J. They both came from the Braves. They’re both the same guy. J.J. was probably even more involved in all the hirings, etc., in player development than Dayton.”

But Sherman, who bought the Royals in 2019, four years after they won the World Series under Moore’s direction, has seen nothing but losing teams — they’re closing in on their third 100-loss season in the last five years — and, as he said Wednesday, he was expecting them to at least be around .500 this season.

According to sources within the Royals, Sherman was frustrated by Moore’s lack of aggressiveness in making moves to improve the team. He was also said to be not all that enthralled with manager Mike Matheny, who Moore hired in 2019 after he’d been found wanting by the cross-state Cardinals after seven years in St. Louis. It’s a given that one of Picollo’s first moves will be to hire a new manager. Perhaps the biggest criticism of Moore was the Royals’ inability to develop quality starting pitchers. Since 2015, they’ve drafted eight starting pitchers in the first round and so far only one of them, Brady Singer, has lived up to that No. 1 promise. …

As much as the Royals’ may have disappointed Sherman, no team in the AL Central underperformed more this year than the overwhelming division favorite White Sox, who completed their implosion last week by getting swept by the Guardians, to fall seven games off the pace, under interim manager Miguel Cairo (so it wasn’t all Tony La Russa’s fault as many in the Chicago media corps have maintained.) Now the question is will White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who fielded the highest payroll in his 40-year tenure as owner this year, likewise shakes up his own front office. But there is no more loyal owner in baseball than Reinsdorf — some would say loyal to a fault — and if longtime president of baseball operations Kenny Williams and GM Rick Hahn are safe, then a major roster re-shuffling is definitely in order, starting with catcher/DH Yasmani Grandal and utilityman Leury Garcia, who this year may have been the two worst players in baseball with the two lowest total base counts of any regulars (minimum 300 plate appearances) in the game. Grandal, who’s always been a below average catcher, is the second player in history with 300-plus plate appearances to score less than 15 runs (as of Friday) and strike out over 60 times, while Garcia’s .500 OPS is the lowest ever by a White Sox player with 300-plus plate appearances. And then there’s Luis Robert, the one-time wunderkind White Sox center fielder who just a year ago was being hailed as a future Willie Mays, but who’s been marked absent both literally (constant minor injuries that keep him out of the lineup) and figuratively (the only player in the American League with 65-plus at-bats in the second half with two or fewer RBI, and no home runs since the All-Star break.)

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