BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD: PASSING THE TORCH

It’s happening before our eyes. We are watching a new generation of young, exciting, engaged baseball players take over the game.  Some are subtler than others and less outgoing than others. All of them thrive on the competition between one another.

Yes, we still value Miguel Cabrera. I think he’s an awesome right-handed hitter. In fact, he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. In his best days, few hit the baseball harder than Cabrera. But now he plays in slow-motion, his legs unable and probably unwilling to take the wear and tear they are summoned to provide game in and game out.  His bat is still quick, but the trunk of his body isn’t responding as it did in the past.  But would I want Miggy on my team?  Of course I would. Even part of today’s Miguel Cabrera exceeds the whole of other more pedestrian players.  And perhaps he comes back strong in the second half.  But the first half of the season was not kind to Mr. Cabrera.

Jose Bautista?  He can still muscle the ball out of the park, but the thunder has left his clouds.  We are left with occasional outbursts that come as often as an earthshaking storm in Phoenix. Not too often.  In the offseason, Bautista was left on the free-agent shelf like a loaf of week old bread.  Three years ago that may have been unthinkable.  In his prime, Bautista could carry a club.  Not now.

C.C. Sabathia? Wow, he was great in his day. I watched him develop with the Indians and I was shaken when he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade that yielded Michael Brantley, the “player to be named later” as the lone remaining piece of the deal still playing for the Indians.  Sabathia owned the strike zone.  He owned the ability to control his pitches and make a hitter look silly.  Today instead of C.C. he is just So So.  If that.  A star that has faded but may linger due to his um….inflated salary.

Bartolo Colon.  A teammate of Sabathia with Cleveland, Bartolo always looked like he ate one too many double cheeseburgers every day of his life.  But Bartolo was a fabulous athlete.  He was a great defensive player on the mound.  And he was fast for his huge size.  Bartolo could fill up the television screen every time we got a close up of his face and/or frame.  Bartolo isn’t Bartolo anymore. He has now suffered the indignity of being released.  In his time, Bartolo could throw his fastball past any hitter.  And he could work up in the zone.  It was his best and most frequently used pitch. Few, if any pitchers threw more fastballs per outing than Bartolo.  He may hang on, but his fingertips will get plenty tired in the process.

Nolan Arenado

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Carlos Gonzalez.  What happened to Cargo?  Is he now No Go?  I still think he’ll come back in the 2nd half of the season, but when it was once a given that Carlos Gonzalez could beat a team in the late innings with a drive to the gap or over the wall in Coors Field, now there is doubt.  If he’s lost it, he’s lost it rather quickly.  If he still has it, “it” isn’t anywhere near the same.  Baseball can be cruel.  And maybe baseball has turned the page from Carlos Gonzalez to younger upstarts like Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, and D J LeMahieu on the Rockies.  Cargo isn’t in many conversations.

Jose Reyes still plays shortstop for the Mets. His best days are long behind him.  Young prospect Amed Rosario will soon take over his position.  Reyes was really good. He could hit and play his position like the All-Star he was.  He could bring electricity to his Mets teams before he was dispatched when he got too expensive.  Those salary days are now in his rear view mirror. Jose Reyes is a mere memory in the minds of many Mets fans.

I loved to watch Adrian Gonzalez play first base for the Dodgers.  He could take the ball to all fields with tremendous power.  Well, he may not have been paying his electric bill, because the power seems to be all but gone.  Yes, he gets hurt more often now.  But one of the young studs is waiting in the wings to put Mr. Gonzalez into a nice retirement.  Yo, Adrian?  Where have you gone? Cody Bellinger is on deck, waiting to take over first base for the next decade in Los Angeles.

There are more. Many more, but you get the point. Some of the great stars of the past happen to be just that.  Stars of the past.

Now, we are thrilled with an endless array of guys that are forming new constellations in the baseball universe.

INTRODUCING THE NEW FACES OF BASEBALL

Where to begin? Is it Mike Trout?  Is it Bryce Harper? Has Aaron Judge blown them both out of the water?  Is Aaron Judge the guy I heard an announcer on Boston radio compare to Yasiel Puig?  He implied Judge might be a one-year wonder.  I doubt it.  I sincerely doubt it.  Judge is a disciplined and very dangerous professional hitter.

Aaron Judge has learned the lessons to be learned in hitting. He takes the ball to all fields.  He knows the strike zone. He studies pitchers. He has shortened his swing since I saw him in the Arizona Fall League.  He’s so big he can block out the sun. He’s so big he looks like a lumberjack with a toothpick in his hand when he’s at the plate.  I stood next to him in Miami and in Phoenix.  Both times I thought I was looking up at Mt. Everest.

And what about the aforementioned Cody Bellinger?  He was the guy that was supposed to be an injury replacement for the Dodgers.  Now he’s here to stay. He has raked against every team he has faced.  A true pull hitter, he has a smooth uppercut swing that can reach the right field seats in any park.  He isn’t huge.  He’s tall and thin. He has tremendous wrists and amazing bat speed.  I hope he can sustain his success.  I must admit I am a bit more skeptical of superstar projections for him than I am for guys like Judge, Harper and Trout.  But Bellinger is very good.

Francisco Lindor

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

What about the shortstops?  Where does the list begin and where does it end?  In no clear order of greatness, we are now seeing  Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Cory Seager, Didi Gregorius, and Xander Bogaerts make incredible plays on defense and carry huge bats to the plate.  This is probably the best crop of shortstops ever to be assembled at the same time in baseball.  And more are on the way, currently finishing their development in the minor leagues.  Did you notice I included Didi?  I’m a huge, huge believer in Didi.

Outfielders?  How would you like to have Giancarlo Stanton on your team?  When he’s healthy, he’s a monster with a bat in his hands.  If you were a pitcher, how would you like to see Stanton or Judge staring at you from the batter’s box?  I think it’s a scary thought.  Yet, there they are, bigger than life.  Football player frames in baseball uniforms with bats in their hands.

George Springer?  Oh right, Springer. Wow. Another lethal bat for the Astros.  He’s young and athletic. Powerful and fast. Exciting and just beginning to reach his potential.  And to think that George Springer is a leadoff type hitter in the vicious and lethal Astros lineup?  And he can run as well as power the ball over the fence. Believe it or not, George Springer is still a bit under the baseball radar.  He and his great young teammate Jose Altuve shine brightly among a non-stop lineup of winning baseball players in Houston.  Is that team the next dynasty?  Oh, right.  People said that about the 2016 Chicago Cubs.  “Knock Knock.”  “Who’s there?”  “The Cubs.” “The Cubs who?” It isn’t that bad, is it?  Or is it?

Mookie Betts may be the best overall athlete of all the young studs.  He can do it all. He can hit for average and for power, he can run and he can play very good defense.  Betts can be streaky, but I’ll take his streaks.  The throw he made from center field to second base to nail Nolan Arenado trying to advance on a fly ball was typical Mookie Betts.  He just does everything well.

Miguel Sano is much bigger and stronger in person than he looks watching games on television.  He’s one of the new young studs capable of winning a game for his team with one ultra-powerful swing of his bat. He’s so strong he can hit the ball out of any park with an incredible line drive force that can rattle the nerves of any pitcher.  And really, we are just now seeing who Miguel Sano is becoming.

Nolan Arenado is the best third baseman I have ever seen. I’ve said it before in this column. He’s a wizard with a glove and with a bat. He doesn’t steal bases, but he steals runs with his All World defense and he produces runs with his all-world bat. Sadly, he plays on the west coast and in games that are too late for east coast fans to see. So for many, Arenado is a secret.

Jose Ramirez is probably my most underrated star of this new generation.  Baseball is just now being introduced to the guy that can do everything on a baseball field.  He is clearly Cleveland’s Most Valuable Player and maybe the league’s MVP. He hits for average and for power.  He can play anywhere in the field.  He’s a bit reckless on the base paths, but that’s the way he plays the game.  His energy is contagious.

The new kid on my under the radar block is Justin Bour.  The baseball world got to meet Mr. Bour in the Home Run Derby.  Only the format did him in.  He hit some absolute bombs at Marlins Park. He comes to the plate with a quick bat and awesome power from the left side.  Look for Mr. Bour’s profile to become much more known in the coming days. He’s the real deal.  He’s now starting to get playing time against left-handed hitters.

Paul Goldschmidt

Photo Credit: Ryan Morris

Have you seen Paul Goldschmidt play first base?  They don’t get much better than that. His quick hands, quick feet, quick reactions and great range on defense all come with his patient and booming bat.  Goldschmidt can do it all.  When a stolen base is needed, Paul Goldschmidt delivers. He’s a true star. His young teammate Jake Lamb is learning at the feet of Mr. Goldschmidt and becoming a star in his own right.

And then there are Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.  Harper and Trout or Trout and Harper.  It sounds like a law firm.  The duo will forever be linked because they came to the game together. And they can both put a team on their back and carry it for days or months at a time.  And, possibly for years. When healthy, both of these guys make the game look simple. Trout is quiet and more reserved. Harper is much more aggressive and overt.  I’d take either of them.  They do it all.

Countless words and stories have been written about Trout and Harper and more are on their way.  Is there a limit to their greatness?  Only health and age will stand in their way.  But they won’t have to worry about the age issue for years to come.

So yes, the torch has passed.  And there are many more fading stars and many more young upstarts on the rise.  That’s baseball.  What have you done for me lately?  In reality, it’s more like what have you done for me ….today?  Or yesterday?  Fans are fickle.  Today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat.  But that’s human nature.

Each of the guys I have listed will have many more of their days in the sunshine of success.  They are among the new breed.  They are bigger, stronger, faster, more powerful, more athletic and more focused than I have ever seen in the game.   Some, like Sano for example, will have to work to stay fit.  That’s a concern I have.  I don’t want to see talent be frittered away by a guy like Sano eating too many fritters.

I didn’t mention any pitchers on this list. That’s a topic for another edition of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD in the future.

BUNTS:

Marlins Park is really beautiful.  There are so many neat things to look at.  They have a huge bobble head display sitting in the middle of a concourse.  They have an aquarium.  The sculpture in the outfield is a terrific conversation piece with its great color and size and lack of definition. I have no idea what it is, but I love it. New owners will get a neat park to fulfill their fantasies of being owners of a major-league baseball team.

The Home Run Derby was one of the most exciting sporting events I have ever witnessed.  The thrill of seeing the way these guys can hit a ball with such force and such distance is almost incomprehensible.  I have total admiration for their ability.  And they had fun trying to beat each other and win it all.

I like the clock part of the Home Run Derby. I don’t like the fact the players face off against another player in a seeding of the eight guys.  I would much rather the elimination be by the number of homers hit round by round, with the clock.  If that were the case, Justin Bour would have advanced.  And he should have. The unluck of the draw did him in.

I liked Joe Buck interviewing players while they were playing defense in the All Star Game coverage on FOX. BUT.  But, I would never want to see that in a game that had meaning.

I did NOT like Nelson Cruz stopping the game to have Jose Molina take his picture with the umpire.  What if every guy wanted to do that?  Yes, it was different. Some say it was neat.

OK, I get that.  But it was over the top.  I do have a top.  Cruz went over it.

The Futures Game provided a terrific showcase for the world to see the next wave of players. There will be some stars that come from that crop, but not in the same depth that we saw in the past three to four years.  I’ll discuss them next week.

Get ready for the second half of baseball.  Here are some issues to consider:

Who gets traded before the non-waiver trade deadline?

Can Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington and Milwaukee all survive and win their divisions?

Will Aaron Judge continue his torrid pace?  How about Cody Bellinger?  Is there someone else out there in the weeds?

Is there a fade in the future for the Astros?

What manager gets the ax first?

Is there a big injury on the horizon that knocks a team out of contention?

How quickly will you be sick of the question “Are the (fill in the team) sellers or buyers?”  I dislike that phrase. Sellers or buyers? They aren’t in the market for a new car. How about, “will they trade players or stand pat?”

Bernie Pleskoff

Come to Cuba with me on January 19, 2018. We have a fantastic trip that highlights everything you have ever heard about Cuban culture and baseball planned.  Our itinerary is an approved group educational trip and meets all government standards.  For information on how you can join the group, contact me at BPleskoff@aol.com.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

Next week: The Future Stars

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie’s work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff