As the real baseball season begins, look for Royals, Cards

Alan Truex 

When the music stopped and everyone found a place – or did not – the major leagues had a much different look.  The Astros had a center fielder.  The Blue Jays had a starting pitcher besides Mark Buehrle.  And they had one of baseball’s greatest two-way players, Troy Tulowitzki.

July was an extraordinary month for baseball trades, with 84 players changing teams.  Still, when the non-waiver trade deadline ended last Friday, the landscape hadn’t changed that much at the top plateau.

The Kansas City Royals got a little better, but they were already the best team in the American League.

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the All-Star break with the best record in baseball, and they’re still No. 1 in all sensible National League power ratings, winning 63 percent of their games.

The Cardinals’ dominance is typical, yet in some ways surprising.  They have their share of health issues – Matt Holliday latest on the DL with the trendy quad injury.  And they’re one of the few good ball clubs, Houston being another, that can’t find a first baseman who can hit much north of .200.

The main reason the Cardinals are the sport’s gold standard for consistent performance – four consecutive appearances in the National League Championship Series  — is that they don’t sacrifice their future to enter the feeding frenzy for overpaid overaged players that other teams want to dump.

The Cardinals could sit back because they have the game’s deepest rotation of starting pitchers, even with ace Adam Wainwright suffering a season-ending injury in April. 

Carlos Martinez is not going to lure much Cy Young attention from the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke, but he’s a top-tier ace for the Cardinals – 11-4, 2.61 ERA.  Michael Wacha would be No. 1 on most teams – 12-4, 3.09.  The rotation doesn’t slip much after that, with John Lackey, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia.

The Cardinals’ bullpen is also secure, with Trevor Rosenthal a shutdown artist.

So it made sense for them to hold onto their developing assets and try to win with what they had.

It’s easier to second-guess the New York Yankees, who stood pat with a mediocre starting rotation that now has lost Michael Pineda, their leading innings grinder, to a forearm strain.

The Yanks were comfortable with a six-game lead in the AL East and would not give up prospects to rent a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.  This is entirely un-Yankee-like.  George Steinbrenner has to be shifting in his grave.

Meanwhile the Toronto Blue Jays’ general manager, Alex Anthopoulas, was the whirling dervish of baseball traders.  He caught the two biggest stars – perennial All-Stars — Detroit pitcher David Price and Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.  And Toronto also acquired an accomplished leadoff batter in Ben Revere.

Even before the July spending spree the Jays had the best run differential in their division.  Adding Revere, Tulowitzki, Price and reliever Mark Lowe should improve them enough to put pressure on the complacent Yankees.

A couple of years from now, however, Anthropoulas may have to explain why he committed so much of the club’s treasury to a 30-year-old shortstop with a recent history of nagging, though not debilitating, injuries.  Tulowitzki’s salary doubles to $20 million next season and stays there until 2020.

So far, he’s been worth his pay.  He’s having his usual production this season, batting .300 with 12 home runs in 87 games, and playing tight and rangy defense.

“You can make the case that certain position players are worth more than starters,” Anthropoulas argues.  “And Tulo is one of those players.”

I’m not so sure.

The Jays are going all in for this year but gave up the best of their prospects to put themselves into pennant contention.  They could end up being the next Philadelphia Phillies or Detroit Tigers – getting close but falling short, with a depleted farm system.

Better to have a balanced approach, veterans and developing youths, the path the Cardinals and Royals are taking.

Kansas City has baseball’s best lineup and best bullpen.  The rotation was a shambles but  now looks presentable, with Johnny Cueto arriving from Cincinnati.

The Astros seem likely to hold off the passive LA Angels in the AL West, with top-end left-handed starter Scott Kazmir and the highly pursued 29-year-old center fielder Carlos Gomez being pricey July additions.

But the Astros, like the Jays, still have critical shortcomings that are likely to eliminate them early in the postseason.

With the youngest pitcher in the majors, 21-year-old Lance McCullers, failing, the Astros were looking for a fourth starter, behind Cy Young front runner Dallas Keuchel, ERA leader Kazmir and 13-game winner Collin McHugh.

So they traded with Milwaukee for Mike Fiers, a dubious asset, being a slow-balling right-hander who throws lots of flyballs.  Get ready in the Crawford Boxes. 

And like the Jays, the Astros failed to address their need for a closer.  Luke Gregerson is the type you can’t count on in the postseason.  He has average power and he gives up frequent home runs (5 in 40 innings).

In the National League, the Cardinals’ main challengers, the Dodgers, Giants and Pirates, were not major buyers or sellers as the trade fair was ending.

Pittsburgh entered the All-Star break just 2 ½ games behind the Cards and being the hottest major-league team in July,   But the Pirates have lost No. 2 starter A.J. Burnett, probably for the season, so it’s hard to see them overtaking the Cardinals.

As the Real Season begins, the Heartland looks strong, the two Missouri-based teams armed well enough to meet in the World Series.


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