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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The reigning kings of New York baseball? The Yankees, of course



There’s no easy way for these words to come out of my head, so I’ll just throw it out there and see if it sticks, you know, like the plate of linguini against the kitchen wall.

Right now, the New York Yankees are clearly the best baseball team in New York.

There, I said it. It was painful to admit, like a two-second trip to the dentist without Novocain. The Yankees are better than the Mets.

The two teams will meet soon for four straight games, Monday Aug. 14 and Tuesday Aug. 15 at Yankee Stadium, then Wednesday Aug. 16 and Thursday Aug. 17 at CitiField.

Those four games might become like an extended stay in the dentist’s chair, like a root canal or even a full-fledged extraction. This year’s Subway Series might become an all-out coronation of which team is better, complete with red carpet, blaring horns and unveiling of the crown.

When the 2017 season began with spring training in late February into March, there isn’t a soul on this planet who would have believed that the Yankees were indeed better than the Mets. It was inconceivable.

The Mets were the team with the young, brash, bodacious pitching rotation. Some went as far as to say it could possibly be the best five-man rotation in the history of the game. An esteemed sportswriter who works for ESPN, Buster Olney, was one who proclaimed such words. Sports Illustrated posted a picture of the five, namely Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler, boasting and bragging that this was the best rotation in the game.

Of course, this clown drank every ounce of that Kool-Aid and believed every single word of it. Dominant, I said. With that pitching staff alone, the Mets could win the pennant, much like they did in 2015. This is the year to win it all, if they stay healthy. There was no comparison between the Mets’ rotation and the Yankees’ five-man unit. It was believed that the Mets’ contingency was the best in the entire game, so it was obviously better than the Bronx.

When the season began, what did the Yankees have as a rotation? They had one sure-fire starter in Masahiro Tanaka, who was coming off a solid 14-4 season with a 3.04 ERA. They had a mixed-up second-year youngster in Luis Severino, a rehabbing Michael Pineda, an unsure 36-year-old C.C. Sabathia _ and nothing else. In spring training, the Yankees didn’t even have five reliable starting pitchers and the Mets had the best rotation in the game, perhaps ever.

The Yankees threw out a startling 36 different pitchers to the mound in 2016 with some names living on in immortality. Try these names on for size. Johnny Barbato? Sounds like my barber. Richard Bleier? No, not the Steelers’ RB. Ben Heller? I prefer Ben Stiller. Tyler Goody? Oh, Goody, I’d rather Sam Goody to get some CDs. Tyler Olson? He’s the long lost brother of the frog-like looking twins from Full House. Conor Mullee? I only know him because he once pitched for St. Peter’s University, yes, that one, Harvard on the Boulevard. Those are some immortal names right there.

Shall we go on? The Mets thought they had the best position player in New York in Yoenis Cespedes, who practically walked on water for his first two seasons, leading the team to the postseason twice. His 2015 season with the orange and blue was something to behold, belting 17 homers in 52 games coming after the big trade deadline deal, leading the Mets to the World Series. Last year, in 132 games, he hit .280 with 31 homers and 86 RBI, as the Mets went to the playoffs for the second straight year for only the second time in club history.

The Mets had a host of proven veteran players who did well in 2016, like Neil Walker, Asdrubal Cabrera, Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda. It didn’t even matter than the former face of the franchise, David Wright, wasn’t even able to pick up a baseball and throw it five feet in spring training. It wasn’t like Met fans were holding on to every last bit of hope that Wright would return. It didn’t matter. The team was still dominant without him, especially if the five starters could make their turn in the rotation.

The Yankees did have a huge glimmer of hope, a bright ray of sunshine in catcher Gary Sanchez, who was incredible last year after his midseason call-up to the Bronx, belting 20 homers in 52 games and hitting .299. Sanchez was so amazing that he finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting _ and he didn’t make his debut until late July. There’s no question that the Yankees had their catcher for the next decade. Sanchez was the “Sanchise” indeed, not like the former Jets quarterback who ran into the rear end of his own player and fumbled. Gary Sanchez was not going to fumble a thing.

And in spring training, it looked as if the Yankees had a first baseman to be excited about for the next 10 years in Greg Bird, who hit an astounding seven homers and batted better than .400 in the Grapefruit League. Bird was smooth around the bag and looked like he was going to just step right in to replace long-time fixture Mark Teixeira, who retired at the end of the season. Another aging great named Alex Rodriguez (remember him?) also hung them up. Both were shells of their real selves in 2016, with Tex batting .204 and A-Rod hitting the unthinkable .200.

The Yankees did have some promising young players. One of which was outfielder Aaron Judge, but he batted .179 in 27 games as a rookie and struck out 42 times in 95 at-bats, almost exactly half of his plate appearances.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman knew that 2016 was going to be a washout, so he traded his two-thirds of his famed All-Star bullpen, namely Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, in order to get younger prospects. For Chapman, Cashman got heralded shortstop Gleyber Torres from the Cubs. For Miller, he received outfielder Clint Frazier from the Indians. Both were big pieces for the future.

That was the key word when it came to the Yankees. The future. The Mets? The future was now, especially with those young arms.

That’s the way the season began. The Mets filled with promise of a great 2017, one that could even become magical. The Yankees seemed to be playing for the future.

But then, the tides started to turn _ and in a hurry. The Mets had a revolving door into the trainer’s office. It was believed that the Mets had a glut of starting pitchers coming into spring training. They all spent more time with medical staff than on the mound.

Matz and last year’s revelation Seth Lugo couldn’t pitch in spring training at all. Then as the season began, they all started to go down. Syndergaard, who was being hyped as the second coming of the Lord, never mind the Thor references and 102 mile-per-hour fastballs, tore a lat muscle and was done. Harvey, who already had Tommy John surgery and thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, where a rib was removed to allow the nerves in his right arm to function, somehow suffered a stress fracture of the shoulder. The Dark Knight references were quickly forgotten. Wheeler, who missed the last two years after Tommy John surgery, came back, showed some signs of brilliance, but then got bombed and went down with a tired arm.

The only pitcher to stay healthy and strong throughout was deGrom, who has been brilliant. The rest? It’s a collective pile of doo-doo. What was supposed to be the strength of the entire league has now evolved into a mess weaker than the skinny kid in third grade who got pummeled in the schoolyard every day. It has to be the biggest disappointment in all of baseball this spring.

The Mets on the field were abysmal to watch. Cabrera and Jose Reyes got old before our eyes. Following a trend, Cespedes and Walker got hurt. So did Juan Lagares. So did Lucas Duda, but he gets hurt every summer. People say that injuries are a part of baseball. Well, the Mets have that part mastered. No team gets hurt like the Mets. None. They’ve cornered the market on trips to the Hospital for Special Surgery. They should just keep an ambulance right outside the operating room door.

The only true positive on the team was Jay Bruce’s surprising return to glory. Bruce, who was dreadful after coming to the Mets last summer, was sensational from the start. With 29 homers right now, he’s on pace to break the team’s all-time single season home run record. So was the rejuvenated Michael Conforto, who shrugged off a horrendous sophomore slump to come back this season and play like an All-Star.

But the rest of the bunch? Downright disgusting. So you take an underachieving, broken down disgrace of a starting rotation, add a bad offensive mix throughout and sprinkle in some really bad defense and you have the reasons why the Mets are dead in the water. They’re six games under .500, going nowhere fast.

As for the Yankees, there has never been more life in the Bronx, a rebirth and rejuvenation perhaps never before seen in pinstripe history. The aforementioned Judge has blossomed into a five-tool superstar, a 6-foot-7 behemoth who leads all of baseball in home runs after winning the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in eye-popping fashion. This lovable humble kid keeps tattooing the baseball with mammoth blasts that come close to 500 feet.

The 25-year-old, a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year who has to be considered as one of the favorites for the American League Most Valuable Player, has 34 homers, 75 RBI, a .299 batting average and a .425 on-base percentage, considering he leads the league in walks. Last year, Judge would swing at breaking pitches that were thrown low and away, but this year, he has laid off those pitches and taking walks. Judge personally symbolizes the rebirth of the Yankees, going from a .179 hitting question mark to a superstar overnight.

The Yankees have a dynamite second base-shortstop combination in Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius. Brett Gardner, the 10-year veteran, is the leader of the team and the resident old-timer at 33 years old. Gardner already has a career-high in homers with 19.

Rookie Frazier has been solid in 24 games since his recall from the minors, batting .255 with four homers and 17 RBI. The red-headed wonder looks like a permanent piece to the Yankees’ outfield, especially after he hit that bomb against the Orioles last week that flew over the bullpens and deep into those left field bleachers. 

And the Yankees made a trade with the White Sox to get another Frazier, namely former Home Run Derby champ and New Jersey hero Todd Frazier, to take over third base. The Yankees clearly lead all of MLB in guys named Frazier. Take that, Niles.

And trades? Cashman has been nothing short of brilliant. First, going back to last year, he traded Chapman to the Cubs for their pennant run, got a stud in Gleyber Torres in return, then re-signed Chapman as a free agent. Brilliant! Then, there was the trade with the White Sox to get Todd Frazier, former Yankee reliever and fan favorite David Robertson and flame throwing reliever Tommy Kahnle. Brilliant!

But the best of all gets unveiled tonight. Sonny Gray was somehow dislodged from the Oakland A’s for three prospects. The All-Star right-handed hurler will make every Yankee fan’s heard skip and go pitter-patter, because this kid is the real deal _ and then some. He might not look like an overpowering pitcher with his slight and small frame, but Gray throws gas and throws five different pitches for strikes. He can be the dominant pitcher that they hoped Tanaka would be this season.

Mark my words, Sonny Gray will become the best right-handed pitching acquisition the franchise has made since Catfish Hunter. That’s saying a lot, but I truly believe it. Gray has it all and the best part about it for Yankee fans is that he’s only 27 years old and under contract for the next two seasons. In 2015, Gray’s last full healthy season, he went 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA and allowed just 166 hits in 208 innings. People on the East Coast might not have gotten the chance to appreciate what Gray can do, but Gray will quickly become a fan favorite in Yankee Stadium, much in the fashion that Ron Guidry’s “Louisiana Lightning” lit up the Bronx during the “Bronx Zoo” era.

Now, that Yankee rotation looks extremely solid, with Severino (8-4, 2.98 ERA) pitching like he’s the ace, Gray, the reborn and remade Sabathia (9-4, 3.81 ERA), the surprising rookie Jordan Montgomery (7-6, 4.15 ERA), Tanaka (8-9, 5.09 ERA, but two solid starts back-to-back) and the recently acquired Jaime Garcia (67-52 over his career, 10-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 2015) to round things off. Suddently, even after losing Michael Pineda to Tommy John surgery, this rotation looks pretty darn good.

And the Yankees find themselves at 57-49, a game behind Boston in the AL East standings, but tied in the loss column. We’ve hit August and the team that everyone thought was rebuilding is right there in the hunt.

The sure-fire contenders in preseason from Queens are 49-56, some 13 and a half games out of first place and unable to see out of the wild card hole they are sitting in. It’s a lost season for sure for the Mets. It’s a glorious return for the Bronx Bombers.

And who’s better? Not even a debate. Holy cow, it’s the Yankees who somehow sneaked past the Mets. And things get better for the Yankees tonight with Sonny Gray ready to shine against the Indians in Cleveland.

This was painful to write, but it’s all factual. Come back to me next March, when people are saying that the Mets have the best rotation in the history of the game. Yeah, sure, that’s the ticket.

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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com or www.theobserver.com

 

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