Strange times: MLB enters 2009 season as a sport in transition
On the first day the entire Baltimore Orioles team gathered for spring training, club president
The lesson? Take nothing for granted. Opening Day, our national symbol of possibility, arrives in a matter of days with even less certainty than usual. Baseball's uninterrupted runs of increased ticket sales and increased salaries are over. The New York Yankees are no longer a team with a current playoff pedigree, but the Tampa Bay Rays are. Five 200-game winners and six 300-home-run hitters no longer have jobs since last season, and not all of their own choosing.
Baseball at the end of the decade (when the tens column clicks to the next number is my cue) is a sport in transition. It is a sport, like most every other industry, stripped by the recession of its economic momentum. Alas, it is a sport also stripped by steroids of a succession of would-have-been legends:
The 2009 season is no more the start of the transition than October was the start of the recession. Changes have been brewing. But now the floor is officially open for the Next Big Star -- the clean version of Rodriguez -- and the Next Big Franchise, especially with the Boston Red Sox holding a shot at supplanting the Yankees as the team of the decade and the Rays looking to consolidate their 2008 breakout and keep Boston or New York -- or both -- home in October.
It should not be much of a surprise that Opening Day rosters do not include
And so the game looks to
Take a look to the right at how young players took over baseball last season, compared to 1998, a decade ago at the height of the Steroid Era. First consider how the top pitchers, as ranked by a relative ERA of 120 or better among qualifiers, broke down according to age increments:
The sample size is not too different, but the number of top pitchers in their 20s is more than double what it was in 1998 (23, 10), while the top pitchers in their 30s is one-third of what it used to be (5, 15).
Now apply the same breakdown for hitters, using relative OPS for qualifiers:
A similar pattern is at work: similar sample size, but more of the top hitters are in their 20s (35, 29) and fewer in their 30s (21, 29).
Yes, the old guys still will have their moments.
Indeed, the Rays make the American League East the primary battleground for the entire sport. The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are the three best teams in baseball, and yet at least one of them is guaranteed to miss the playoffs. "It's going to be a frickin' war in that division," said A's general manager
The Yankees, given their spending and age, run counter to the current culture, a product of their hugely successful business model that allows them to charge $425,250 for a pair of premium season tickets and to spend $795.9 million on six free agents over the past two years -- almost exactly twice as much money on six players as the Rays have paid every player ever to play for them in the 11-year history of the franchise.
No team has won a pennant in 29 years or a World Series in 54 years with a shortstop as old as
Boston has two legit aces in
The AL East might be the toughest division since the 2002 AL West, when Seattle went home with 93 wins because Oakland won 103 and the Angels won 99. Of the 54 AL teams to win 90 games in the wild-card era, only seven did not make the playoffs. Every team that won at least 94 games has made the postseason -- so far.
The Angels and Twins (assuming the return of irreplaceable
In the National League the Mets and Phillies have their own Yankees-Red Sox drama going on, with the Marlins assembling the kind of starting pitching to resemble a Rays-like coup. Alas, Florida doesn't play defense anything close to Rays-like. Atlanta, with a breakout by Hanson, could be the top turnaround story in the league.
The Cubs, though they will miss
Naturally, at least one team will come from nowhere -- well, at least from a losing record in the previous year -- to make the playoffs, because that, too, is a part of the modern game. Best candidates for the glass slipper? Cincinnati, Texas, Oakland and Colorado.
The Reds and Rangers have been down too long in the democracy of the modern game. They are among only seven franchises that have not reached the postseason this decade. Toronto, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore and Washington/Montreal have somehow also missed the crowded party. The Yankees are guaranteed to have the most wins of the decade (they have a 37-win lead over Boston), but the Red Sox have the most world championships (two, with seven other franchises tied with one). Keep in mind, too, that in this decade alone teams have busted championship droughts of 10, 24, 28, 41, 86 and 88 years -- awakenings that must warm the hearts of Indians fans on the chilly shores of Lake Erie.
So where does that leave us in these uncertain times for the next world champion? Find a team in a deep championship slump; say 23 years. Check for improved run prevention, especially because of an upgraded bullpen that alone might be 40 runs better. Check for athleticism and a core of star players in their youthful prime years. Throw in strong revenues (thanks to a new ballpark) to allow for midseason payroll additions (a decided edge over most clubs in these times). And you get a world championship for the Mets in the debut of CitiField, a ballpark planned as a sweet homage to Brooklyn and Ebbets Field but opening as an unintended monument to a federal bailout of a bank and the world's most notorious Ponzi scheme, a fraud by a Mets season-ticket holder that claimed the club's owner among its victims. Strange times, indeed.