With the non-waiver trade deadline now surpassed, the rosters reasonably set, the wheat and chaff separated, the also-rans properly in their place, and two thirds of the schedule having come and gone it's time for the baseball season to get serious. The Dog Days of August have arrived.
Technically, 20 of the 30 teams are still in contention; that is if you define "a contender" with eight weeks to go as a team that's within six games of the last wild-card berth in each league, which is what MLB in its passion for parity chooses to do. You can sneer at this and argue any team that's only .500 and 10 games behind this late has no chance.
But if you do that you're not only dismissing the Red Sox -- which is reasonable -- but forgetting that the defending champion Cardinals were in roughly the same plight precisely a year ago. And that's not reasonable. After the madcap finish of the 2011 season featuring (among others) your favorite team (as if you need be reminded) few students of this crazy business will be anxious to declare anything over until it's over, thus further verifying the prophetic wisdom of Yogi Berra.
Who says a 162 game season is ridiculously too long? As the game has evolved in our times, the full season actually consists of three quite different seasons. The first runs until Memorial Day and means little while revealing even less. The second extends well into the summer beyond the All Star break as teams grope to find their viable roster while enduring the inevitable injuries (much on the rise) and sorting out attitude issues (even more on the rise) brought about by the constant shuffling of rosters and radical turnover of personnel. How well teams identity these problems and deal with them during this middle stage -- a process that climaxes with the July 31st trade deadline -- determines their fate in the third and final stage which we are now entering.
The team that by this point has truly ironed out all its kinks resolving its thorniest quirks while surviving the inescapable quota of health, attitude, and motivational issues thus emerging much stronger than it was at the start of the season is increasingly difficult to identity on the first of August. But it's fascinating to consider how rarely it proves to be the team that had been dominant to this point.
Times have changed. Teams just don't run away with it anymore. The wire to wire champ is almost extinct. In this generation, there has only been a handful. The Tigers and Mets for a year in the '80s. The Blue Jays, a couple of Yankees' editions, and maybe one Braves' team in the '90s. None, really, in more recent years.
Increasingly, smart teams recognize this and make regular season eminence less a priority. Call it the "St. Louis Cardinals syndrome." They have worked the new thinking to utter perfection twice in the last half dozen seasons. Your 2004 Red Sox were a text-book illustration of the thesis while the 2010 Giants were an even better example.
At the other extreme, the team that's been most often stung by all these strange new dynamics has obviously been the Yankees whose obsession with gearing for and dedicating themselves to the domination of the regular season increasingly looks counter-productive. If they continue to coast the rest of the way then get smacked in the opening payoff round by Oakland we may safely conclude they still don't get it.
A key factor in this new scenario has been the wild-card, that devilish modern contrivance that for some of us remains highly aggravating. But if it tends to negate the point and purpose of the regular season there's no question that it has added to the excitement. And it is excitement, not the purity of the process that sells. Or so they say. Now we have two wild-cards in both leagues. Does that double the wackiness and therefore the excitement?
Beyond doubt is the fact, however regrettable, that the wild-card is here to stay. There might even be the danger that its foremost champion -- and that would be the ex-used car salesman in charge of this game -- might be tempted to further double the wild-cards to four per league per year.
But is it smart in the long run to diminish the meaning and value of your regular season when the product you are selling consists of 2,340 regular season games? Ah, now that is the question nor does it remotely interest Czar Selig whose total obsession is the profits his game enjoys, here and now. One can almost hear Selig and his cronies muttering, "Let posterity take care of itself."
Hey, maybe in the end this year we'll have a world series matching the A's and the Pirates and wouldn't that be delightful! In the meantime, there's much to monitor.
The MVP races in both leagues. At the moment, the leaders are the two most sensational talents to hit the scene in years; 25 year old Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates and 20 year old Mike Trout of the Angels. McCutchen is hitting .373 with 22 homers. Trout is hitting .347 with 33 stolen bases. Both dazzle on defense and play with dashing flair. Loath as I am to anoint mere kids for immortality before they've begun to shave, it must be said they seem the real deal which further obliges us to recall that once upon a time we said that about Freddie Lynn.
Comeback of the decade: That would be the inscrutable AJ Burnett, rebounding from his epic folly with the Yankees to become prime contender for the NL's Cy Young award. First NL hurler to reach 14 wins, he's doing it the old-fashioned way with long outings of sharp, disciplined pitching high in strike outs and quality outings. It's not a mere comeback by AJ Burnett, it's a bloody metamorphosis. To think, the Yankees actually gave him away.
Team to root for: Has to be Pittsburgh's Pirates. After 19 consecutive dreadful losing seasons a storied franchise rather lost in time emerges from a deep sleep. What a story. McCutchen and Burnett are two keys. But the Bucs brim with young talent; Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, James McDonald. All nicely blended by enlightened new ownership and a rousing manager in Clint Hurdle. Haven't heard of these guys, you say. You will!
Team most likely to implode: My nominee is the Rangers. Suddenly their pitching looks awfully fragile. Josh Hamilton -- also fragile -- must snap out of it.
Am also not convinced of the Yankees' inevitability although a playoff berth would appear safe, the curious reservations of Bobby Valentine notwithstanding. In the NL, the Nationals remain unproven.
Team most likely to explode: Depends what you mean by the term "explode." Whether the connotation is negative as in "falling apart," or positive as in "taking off," the winner among baseball observers would probably be the Red Sox. They are as likely to finish last as make the World Series. Who can fathom them? Wise folks need not try.
Most interesting character under the microscope: Has to be Valentine. Un-mellowed by age. As mercurial as ever. Give him credit for being contemptuous of the conventional wisdom. But does it all add up to a death wish? The ending will have a certain Viking quality to it. Of that much, you can be sure.
Other players to watch: Only the more fascinating examples include the Reds' Joey Votto when he comes back from injury. The A's Cuban phenom Yoenis Cespedes disdained by the big-shot teams. The Nationals' Stephen Strasburg rebounding from Tommy John surgery and facing a shutdown. The Rays David Price. Can he win 25? The Yanks' Ichiro. Will he make a difference? Does Dan Duquette realize atonement in Baltimore? Does Don Mattingly overcome all the doubts in Los Angeles? Can Adam Dunn rebound from being AL's worst player to home-run champ?
There's lots to groove on these next few weeks. Welcome to "the Dog Days."