Phillips: On the AL East, Harper, Jeter and more

Steve Phillips
7/4/2014 12:50:00 PM
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TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers several questions each week. This week's topics include the battle atop the American League East, Bryce Harper rocking the boat, All-Star Derek Jeter and more.

1. The Baltimore Orioles have taken over first place in the AL East (albeit by percentage points) from the Toronto Blue Jays following Thursday's games.   Will the AL East race come down to which GM makes a move first, or do you see one club having an advantage over the other as they are currently constructed?

The Blue Jays and Orioles are two very similar teams.  They both have dynamic offences and somewhat less than overwhelming pitching.  They also are in a similar position as they find themselves in an uncommon spot atop the AL East.  I have been saying over and over that this year is an unanticipated opportunity for the Jays.  This is a season that the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are all subpar teams that are not playing very good baseball.  If there was ever a year for the Jays to go for it, this is it.  But the same logic applies to the Orioles.

Whereas, the Jays and Orioles are very similar, there are some subtle differences.  The Jays have a better offence as they have outscored the Orioles by 35 runs.  The Orioles have the overall edge in pitching as they have a 3.90 ERA (7th) and the Jays have a 4.03 ERA (11th), but interestingly, within those pitching numbers, the Jays have a better starting pitchers' ERA, while the Orioles' bullpen is almost a run better in ERA. 

What does this all mean?  It means that a general manager will decide who wins the AL East:  Dan Duquette vs. Alex Anthopolous.  If either team decides to let their offence be the focus of the club, that will be the team that will lose.  Pitching wins championships.  These two teams need better pitching, not only to win the division or to be a Wild Card team, but they need better pitching if they have any designs on advancing once in the playoffs. 

The most interesting part of this will be that they will battle for the same players in the trade market.  Neither team is likely to get David Price, since the Rays probably won't move him within the division, but Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel (a former Oriole) of the Cubs could help both teams. 

If Cliff Lee of the Phillies returns to health before the deadline, I would expect him to be made available.  His contract is likely prohibitive to the Jays and his health history prohibitive to the Orioles.  There is speculation the Phillies might move Cole Hamels, but he would have to approve any trade and it is unlikely he moves north of the border.  The O's might have an edge in getting Hamels if he is moved, but his contract may be prohibitive considering how they got burned by the Ubaldo Hernandez deal this year.  AJ Burnett could be a chip the Phillies would move.  The Jays know him well as he played there a few years back.  The fear with Burnett is that he faded down the stretch last year for the Pirates.  Will he do the same this year?

There is a ton of interest in the NY Mets lefty Jon Niese.  He would help both teams and fits financially, as well.  The Jays have a recent history of trading of trading with the Mets in the R.A. Dickey deal.  Relationships matter, so this could give the Jays a slight advantage.  If the Mets make Bartolo Colon available, he could be a target of both teams.  He is an experienced 41-year-old guy who is a competitor and he has pitched successfully in the AL.  The Orioles may shy away from his age, giving the Jays an advantage. 

I suspect both teams will also target relievers.  The San Diego Padres are getting the most calls right now as they have both closer Huston Street and set-up man Joaquin Benoit available.  I don't anticipate either team targeting a closer to step in and assume the duties, so any interest in Street would likely be to add him as a set-up man and use him as insurance to close.  Joaquin Benoit is the best set-up man available and he has some experience as a closer.  It will be far easier to make a deal for Benoit than Street.  He would be a difference-maker for both clubs. 

Both the Orioles and Jays have enough depth in their farm systems to make deals for this year.  Certainly the GMs would have to swallow hard to trade away prospects, but let me remind you that prospects get general managers fired.  Big leaguers win championships. 

So as the players battle and the managers manipulate their rosters to try and win games, this season will be decided by guys who wear ties to work not uniforms. 

May the better man win.

2. When he returned from injury earlier in the week, Washington Nationals OF Bryce Harper told the media his ideal lineup for the club that included him starting in centre field over teammate Denard Span.  Manager Matt Williams downplayed the comments as best he could afterwards.  How disruptive are comments like this to the team, or does the media make more out of it than there really is?

Is Bryce Harper a good player?  I find myself asking this because so far I am not really sure how good he is.  He has shown flashes of brilliance, but he is only a .273 career hitter.  He has never driven in over 60 runs in a season.  Now, I know he has suffered injuries that have limited his playing time, but at some point he needs to be less about the hype and more about actual production.

He needs to less about talking and more about doing. 

At 21 years old, there is still plenty of time for Harper to fulfill his potential, but he really needs to focus more on his production and less about writing out the line-up.  I mean, really?  Twenty-year veterans don't make comments about who they believe the manager should be playing.  Who does he think he is?

As much as Harper's comments rubbed Williams the wrong way, it had to rub his teammates that way, too.  Players don't care for young phenoms who talk.  Remember when Cole Hamels of the Phillies hit Harper with a pitch a couple of years because he just didn't like his style? That tells you what players think. 

Earlier this year, Williams benched Harper for not hustling.  It was a huge statement made to Harper and the entire organization.  It said that it doesn't matter who you are, if you don't do what I say you will be held accountable.  Harper's cocky attitude without having accomplished anything significant in the big leagues alienates him from his peers.  They had to enjoy some of the air be taken from his balloon. 

Harper gave Matt Williams another opportunity to make a statement.  This time Williams chose to minimize Harper's comments and protect. Time will tell if this was the right approach.  I would have preferred my manager knock him down a few pegs by calling Harper in and telling him to shut his mouth and just play. Then, when asked by the media, I would have wanted Williams to say, “It has been addressed internally.  Beyond that I have no comment.” 

The most important aspect of this though is the player-to-player reaction.  What is going on in that clubhouse?  Bryce Harper desperately needs a veteran player to grab him by the collar and mentor him.  Harper's ego may not allow him to be open to that, but boy does he need it. These comments can force Harper into isolation to where he won't interact with teammates.  What a lonely existence. The Nats can overcome this now, but in the long run it will tear apart the fabric of the franchise if Harper is left unaddressed and isolated.

I was worried about Harper when his parents appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 with a title “Baseball's Chosen One.”  I am more concerned now.  No kid should have to live up to that.  It set's him up to fail and disappoint, even if he turns out to be a pretty good player.

Just play Bryce.  Lighten up.

3. Derek Jeter – who is outside the top five in most offensive categories among AL shortstops – still holds a solid lead in All-Star voting.  Does Jeter deserve a final All-Star start as part of his farewell tour or is this just another flaw in the voting system?

Derek Jeter does not deserve to be an All-Star based upon his on-field performance this season.  The fans are voting for him to show their respect for his long and meritorious service.  I understand that.  I have tremendous respect for Jeter.  He is a superstar on and off the field.  He is one of the most clutch players I have ever seen and one of the classiest, too.  Playing in New York is not easy.  Players play and live in a fishbowl.  Jeter has survived a lengthy career without scandal.  He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. 

That being said, his leading the balloting for shortstops and starting the All-Star Game isn't appropriate.  It shows a major flaw and contradiction in the entire system. 

One of the slogans for the midsummer classic is “The All-Star Game means something.”   It is not just an exhibition.  The teams are playing for home-field advantage in the World Series.  I get it, that can certainly be important. 

Is there any other game that means something where the fans get to pick who starts the game?  If the Jays come down to the last game of the regular season against the Orioles and the winner is the division champ and the loser is a Wild Card team, should John Gibbons let the fans decide who is starting in the game?  Of course not. 

There is an easy solution: The fans vote for players they want to see in the game, but the players vote for the starters in the game. 

The fan vote is a popularity contest. It is not a strategic evaluation about winning a game.  The fans should get a say in the roster, just not the starters.  This would allow for Derek Jeter to appropriately be recognized, but still allows the game to be played like it mean something.   

Bud Selig is stepping down at the end of this year.  Maybe if the fans start campaigning for me to be commissioner I can institute this change.

Do I have your vote?


On July 4, 1939 Lou Gehrig gave one of the most memorable speeches ever.  He had been diagnosed with an illness, ALS, which later became know as Lou Gehrig's disease.  It is a horrible disease where once strong bodies deteriorate before our very eyes.

Gehrig had played a then record of 2,130 consecutive games.  That is about 5.83 years of playing baseball over a 17-year career.  He was the most durable player in the game at the time.  His body allowed him to play through pain and injury.  How ironic that it was his body that so quickly deteriorated?  He died less than two years after his speech.  

How unfair.  Gehrig didn't deserve this.  He did everything right.  He was a classy professional who showed up for work everyday.   He prepared well, played hard and produced at the highest level.  He had it all.  He was adored and respected by his teammates, his bosses, the media, and the fans.  He was loved by his family.  He had everything.  If anyone had a right to feel like a victim it was Lou Gehrig. 

Yet, there was no victim in him. 

He proclaimed, "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."  In his darkest moment, robbed of that which he loved the most he found gratitude.

He went on to say what he was grateful for, "I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

"Look at these grand men [his teammates]. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career to associate with them for even one day?

"Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert -- also the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow -- to have spent the next nine years with that wonderful little fellow Miller Huggins -- then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology -- the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy.

"Sure, I'm lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that's something! When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies, that's something.

"When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles against her own daughter, that's something. When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing! When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that's the finest I know."

I have learned through my own struggles over the 51 years of my life, particularly the last five years, that we all have stories.  We all have struggles.  We all walk with a limp.  Some of our limps are more profound than others.  Some of us are better at hiding our limps than others.  But we all have them. 

I have learned, too, that I am not here to teach, but rather I am here to learn from those around me.  Everyone I cross paths with in my life can teach me something.  I can always find a way to relate to the struggles of someone else and learn from them.

I can relate to Lou Gehrig's story in my own way.  There was a time in my life where from the outside I had it all:  a loving family, a great job, money, respect etc.  I had all of those things that the world would deem needed for success.  Then, in one fell swoop, it all fell apart it.  My illness, addiction, led me down a path of self-destruction.  I actually didn't believe I had a lot to live for. 

My initial reaction was to feel like a victim, but I learned from others who were suffering, as I was, that there is no recovering in that victim place.  So I decided to fight to get better.

I truly believe that you find out a lot more about people when they are facing adversity than when things are going well.  It's easy to be a good teammate, coworker, employee, husband, wife and friend when everything is going well.  When things are their darkest, we show what we are truly made of. 

Lou Gehrig at his darkest moment found a solution in gratitude.  I have learned that along the way, as well.  When I don't feel right or if I feel like a victim during the course of my day, I stop and list the things I am grateful for.  It is hard to feel like a victim when I dwell on all of the gifts in my life.  I believe and have experienced that from our greatest miseries come our greatest blessings.  I am living that. 

So today, I am grateful for Lou Gehrig's courage.  I am grateful for his reinforcing that gratitude is the answer.  I am grateful that I get to make a living doing what I love.  I am grateful for my family.  I am grateful for the support of TSN and my other employers.  I am grateful that I see the world differently and interact with it differently today. I am grateful for my faith.  I am grateful that I am not judgmental like I once was and that many people don't judge me without knowing me.  I am grateful for my fall because it was the only way I could rise.

Lou Gehrig is known as the Iron Horse because of his consecutive games played streak.  He is known for a disease that is absolutely awful.  But to me he is an inspiration of faith and courage.  He taught me something and for that I will always be grateful.

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