Happy Monday and welcome to another edition of The Ten. It seems like we are hurdling through September baseball. The slight chill in the air is growing and the playoffs are approaching at a rapid pace. With almost every division still in flux we are in store for an entertaining stretch run in 2020. Let’s see what we can examine in the coming days.
1. MiLB President Retires
On Tuesday, it was reported that Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner would retire following the 2020 season. Who his probable successor will be is still unknown—and the office itself may not even exist soon. MLB has expressed intention to consolidate more power over the minor leagues, and with the power vacuum now in place, it could very well happen.
Earlier in the season, we had learned O’Conner had created a new committee in order to negotiate the deal between MLB and MiLB that expires at the end of September. This deal will be crucial in setting the stage for what minor league baseball will look like in the years to come. With many minor league teams already on the chopping block, I can only imagine that the MLB will look to further streamline their farm systems in order to better control its product. With the deal’s expiration looming at the end of the month, we’ll see how negotiations progress, if at all, in the remaining days.
2. Braves win some, lose some
The Atlanta Braves still hold sway in the National League East, but their journey here has been far from a smooth one. They started the year without Cole Hamels and Nick Markakis, Mike Soroka is out for the year and they spent a sizable chunk of the season without the services of Ronald Acuña and Ozzie Albies. More bad news hit last week when Max Fried was sent to the IL with back spasms. Braves fans also held their collective breath when Acuña fouled a ball off of his foot and had to exit the game on Friday, but luckily did not miss any action.
But things finally seem to be looking up for Atlanta—on the offensive side of the ball anyway. Albies finally returned from the IL and has done so in style, picking up two home runs and three stolen bases in five games. Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, and Marcell Ozuna remain among some of the best bats in the league. And the aforementioned Acuña continues to plug along as an elite all-around player. The Braves may even be getting an influx of pitching help soon as well, as veteran lefty Cole Hamels is making great progress in his return from triceps tendinitis. With their expected main competitors in the Nationals wallowing in the NL East basement, these last weeks of play will be where the Braves can build upon their 3.5-game lead over the Marlins. Atlanta is one of the most fun teams in baseball and is a joy to watch day in and day out.
3. Matt Chapman‘s replacement
It’s no secret that Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman has had a down year. His elite glovework and excellent bat have anchored the A’s at the hot corner and in the middle of the batting order for the last two seasons. But things were off to a slow start for Chapman in 2020 as his walks dwindled and his batting line stood at .232/.276/.535. Early last week, manager Bob Melvin held Chapman out of action and it turned out he would need surgery. A torn hip labrum sounded a death knell for the 27-year-old’s season. Even without Chapman hitting like himself, it was still a major blow to the AL West-leading A’s.
So who can step up to replace Chapman? Enter Jake Lamb. Please, contain your excitement. Now I know Lamb has been far from his 2016-2017 self, so much so that Arizona finally cut bait by designating him for assignment last Thursday. 2018 and 2019 were a trainwreck for Lamb and 2020 has been even worse. Poor play has only allowed Lamb to play in a combined 152 games over the last three seasons and while it’s very possible Lamb was simply a flash in the pan several seasons ago, Lamb could see regular playing time at third base for Oakland who doesn’t really have a viable option there with Chapman out. Consistent at-bats in a good lineup on a playoff-bound team could help revitalize Lamb’s once-promising bat. And while I’m not exactly holding my breath waiting for a stretch run come back of a player who hasn’t hit well in three seasons, at the very least I’m curious to see how he does. As a free-agent-to-be, Lamb could parlay this change of scenery into a decent contract.
4. Bobby Dalbec is outrageous
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the Red Sox adding 1B Triston Casas to their alternate site and how their parade of young bats will be hitting the majors over the next couple of seasons. Guys who could contribute in 2021 or 2022. Then infielder Bobby Dalbec said “nah, I’m gonna go ahead and do that right now.”
Dalbec was called up two weeks ago and he has refused to stop hitting. In just 43 plate appearances Dalbec has hit .282/.349/.769 with six home runs, five of which came in a span of four consecutive games. Sure, the 46.5 K% isn’t the most encouraging stat to look at, but Dalbec’s historic run has been a salve for a Red Sox fanbase currently enduring one of their worst seasons in recent memory. At just 25 years old, Dalbec is staking his claim as a future cornerstone of the Boston lineup.
5. Bo is back, but at a cost
I feel like Bo Bichette is on here every other week, but it’s not like he hasn’t earned it. Bichette returned to action for Toronto on Saturday after a worrisome knee injury landed him on the IL and his season was possibly in jeopardy. But all is well and Bo is back in the Jays’ lineup as they continue to battle for playoff positioning.
But as the Blue Jays add their 22-year-old phenom shortstop back to the lineup card, they will have to scratch another name off in first baseman Rowdy Tellez. The 25-year-old Tellez has been enjoying his best season of work so far, slashing .283/.346/.540 with eight homers and five doubles across 35 games. Tellez joins Teoscar Hernández on the IL, who was also building himself a career year in the shortened 2020 season. While the Jays are hopeful that both Tellez and Hernández can return for the playoffs, it remains just that—hope. The new-look Blue Jays have a crucial seven games against the division-rival Yankees over the next 10 days, with a four-game set against Philly sandwiched in between. This run is where Toronto can prove if their World Series plans are legitimate or just a mirage.
6. Astros salvation
Now you may say this is cheating as I have used this blurb before. And to that I say, “Yeah, but it’s Justin freakin’ Verlander so it’s worth another mention, OK?!”
A few days ago it was reported that Justin Verlander is on track to possibly return at the end of September, as per manager Dusty Baker. The reigning AL Cy Young winner has ramped up this bullpen sessions and barring any sort of setback, could rejoin Zack Greinke in the Houston rotation just in time for playoff baseball. For a team that just lost Lance McCullers to an injury, this would be a massive boon. The Astros currently sit at 23-23—good for 2nd place in the AL West—but the expanded playoff format currently makes Houston the #6 seed. Now that we have somewhat of a timetable for the return of a frontline starter in Verlander, things may be looking up for the banged-up Astros. JV is expected to face live hitters in his next session, and I’m dying to see how his forearm holds up.
7. Artillery reinforcements
While the Yankees have somewhat stabilized from their horrific downturn from one of the top teams in baseball to barely in the playoff picture, there is still plenty of baseball left to be played. Luckily for them, they may be getting back a few of their best hitters.
On Friday manager Aaron Boone spoke about both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. The pair have reportedly been progressing well in their rehab and could be activated as early as this weekend. This would be a tremendous help for New York, as both outfielders have been out of action for most of 2020: Stanton was tabled after only 14 games and Judge has played only 18 games in between two separate IL stints. With both of them off the field and IL trips for other players like DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, it’s no wonder the Yankees have fallen from their early-season grace.
Both Judge and Stanton have a penchant for re-injury, so I’ll be following this closely to see if any mysterious setbacks pop up. I’ve been burned before.
8. Playoff bubble materializing
As COVID-19 continues to ravage the United States, sports across the country are continuing to take precautions in order to keep players and employees safe while still providing the same product to their fans. The NHL and NBA “bubbles” have gone off without any major hitches, and the NFL is just about through it’s opening weekend without any disasters.
But this success still seems to elude MLB. The Padres and Giants have resumed play after they were latest victims of a positive test in the clubhouse, and luckily we have not seen Marlins- or Cardinals-levels of outbreak in some time. The fact of the matter is, with teams still traveling and some players not entirely taking precautions seriously, outbreaks will continue unless the teams are separated from regular society. This is where the bubble comes in.
On Friday, Jeff Passan reported the latest on negotiations regarding the playoff bubble format. The league sent the proposal to the players union some time ago, but there still are sticking points remaining—most notably how player families will be allowed to enter the bubble. With playoff baseball only a mere two weeks away, it would behoove the league and the union to strike a deal as soon as possible, so that players, coaches, staff, and families can all thoroughly and more importantly, safely enjoy the postseason.
9. Phamily reunion?
After acquiring outfielder Tommy Pham from the Rays back in the Winter, the San Diego Padres were a sleeper pick for the postseason, especially given the inherent weirdness of a shortened season. Pham has gone 20/20 in two of the last three seasons, and only came up five stolen bases short in a 2018 season he split between St. Louis and Tampa. He was clearly a great get for the Friars.
Pham was off to a slow start in 2020 and to make matters worse he fractured his hamate bone back in mid-August. Hamate injuries are delicate and easy to aggravate, so the outlook for Pham’s return was far from rosy. However, things have looked great in Pham’s recovery, as the speedy outfielder took live batting practice as early as last Thursday and is eyeing a return to the lineup soon. Another great bat in the San Diego lineup will only further solidify their postseason case, as their 31-17 record currently places them as the #4 seed in the National League. Pham is also going to find the dugout a bit different than when he left as San Diego had a flurry of moves at the deadline, adding Mike Clevinger, Austin Nola, Jason Castro, Mitch Moreland, and several others.
10. A comeback cut short
I was really rooting for Merrill Kelly. The Diamondbacks right-hander is set to undergo thoracic outlet surgery after Arizona placed him on the IL at the end of August. Thoracic outlet surgery has been incredibly difficult to come back from, recently affecting pitchers like Matt Harvey, Chris Archer, and Jaime García. While García managed to have several effective seasons following the procedure, Archer is still recovering and Harvey has been a shell of his former self.
Kelly returned to the MLB in 2019 after fizzing out of the Rays’ minor league system and spending four seasons abroad with the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization. His 2019 stateside was less than stellar, posting a 4.42 ERA over 183.1 IP for the Snakes. 2020, however, was looking like a renaissance. In five starts, Kelly had thrown 31.1 IP with a 2.59 ERA. He also had cut his BB/9 in half to 1.4 and had upped his K/9 to 8.3. It will be a long road back for Kelly, if he decides to try to make that journey at all. Kelly is scheduled to receive his surgery on Wednesday and I truly hope this isn’t the end of his tale just yet.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)