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Mudville: July 22, 2024 3:29 am PDT

Punxsutawney Phil has nothing on me.

Nearly everywhere I look around baseball, I see shadows.

Move over seer of seers and prognosticator of prognosticators. Let’s take a look at this offseason and what teams really improved. What teams stayed pretty much the same — the department of status quo — and what teams took a step backwards, climbing deeper into their holes, for the most part guaranteeing six more years of bad baseball.

That list is long and growing every day.

Here at Baseball or Bust this is the question: How long can the game survive with most major league teams not even trying to win?

Really, is anybody trying to win? That’s the question MLB teams have to be asking themselves. They continue to drop the ball just as Bill de Blasio dropped Staten Island Chuck back on Groundhog Day in 2014.

Competition is down in Major League Baseball across the board and that is clearly on the owners and GMs and their battalion of analyticians who have created new ways of measuring success instead of the proven old way … wins and losses.

Scoreboard, baby. At every level, including the ransacked minor leagues.

The teams are trying to sell a bill of goods to fans in such struggling outposts as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore. The question is are you going to buy it? Better yet, are you going to buy tickets to see some of these dreadful teams who have already punted on the season weeks before the first ball is even thrown in spring training?

Let’s look at the list of teams who have genuinely improved this winter. This won’t take long. And we are not painstakingly going to go through every winter move, bit by bit, that can be left to trackers and list makers. That is their forte.

Here goes.

The Winter Winners: White Sox, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Padres and Mets have all tried to improve this offseason. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is a small group, only five of 30 teams.

Since the Dodgers are coming off their first World Series win since 1988, they get a pass.

So that is six teams earnestly trying to get better and win the whole thing. They have a plan and they are putting the plan in place.

Everyone else out of the pool.

Now there are some teams I feel are trying their best to improve from within, like the Marlins, but they are not crossing the financial threshold to make it happen because of their overall situation and that is a shame. With the Marlins’ young arms I would love to see a little more emphasis put on offense, so I am still holding out hope they come up with a late deal that gives them a better shot.

I can also throw the Braves in that pile. But they need to bring back Marcell Ozuna or grab a hitter of that caliber to make it to the Really Improved List.

The bigger question here is about competition.

Whatever happened to the notion of playing to win? Herman Edwards was so right when he said back in 2002, “The greatest thing about sports is, you play to win the game. Hello! You play to win the game. You don’t play it just to play it. … You play to win. When you start telling me it doesn’t matter, then retire. Get out!’’

Every owner should play that tape for their front office executives, and bring in the mental skills coach too while you are at it. You play to win the game. It’s not about keeping your team in the game, a quote that makes my skin crawl every time I hear a pitcher say it after a five or six-inning mediocre performance.

You play to win. You get the ball because it’s your job to get the win and you learn to win.

Same for hitting. There is an art to hitting with runners in scoring position no matter what the Nerds try to tell you that it’s pretty much luck. I’ve seen too many big game hitters have big games.

Punxatawney Phil

The one and only Punxatawney Phil.

This Madness of Mediocrity all started in my mind with the invention of extremely limiting pitch counts. That was the beginning of the end. That was the beginning of giving pitchers an out for poor performances and if you look closely, more injuries are happening than ever even with the arbitrary 100-pitch pitch count. So this has hurt on two levels – strength of performance and health.

In the minors, pitchers don’t thirst for victory anymore, it’s all about the spin rate and the process and video. Hitters too. Exit velo continues to be the goal. I’ve said it many times, batting average matters.

There is a knack to a knock.

Competition is at the center of all this. I remember watching many, many batting practices with Derek Jeter’s group and Jeter would always be playing some type of game within the batting practice, putting pressure on hitters and seeing how they responded to pressure.

Things like this used to be done all the time, especially in spring training during drills, small bets making for big competition. Way back when in Yuma, the Padres pitchers would have circles drawn on the infield for bunting practice. And it was done on all levels. Major league and minor league. Put your bunts within that circle, win that day’s competition and as one of the competitors told me, “You have a little extra money that night to buy a six-pack of Old Milwaukee.’’

Competition breeds competition.


Nolan Arenado is heading to the Cards, and a new level of comfort.

Pitchers often are congratulating themselves these days for mediocre performances, a chorus of “good job” backslaps from club personnel, and of course the ever present mental skills coach (on all levels there is a mental skills coach) for merely doing their job. It reached an organizational crescendo this past World Series when Blake Snell was removed with a two-hit shutout in Game 6. Snell didn’t want to come out, his manager and front office wanted him out and it was a tipping point. I said at the time Snell would never throw another pitch for the Rays, about a month later I wrote he would be traded to the Padres for prospects.

Both came true.

Of my teams that really put in the effort this offseason to get better, let’s point out some things. The White Sox are due. They last won the World Series in 2005 and before that you have to go back to 1917. They have won only three World Series in their history. So yeah, it’s about time to spend some money and make some deals and adding closer Liam Hendriks for $54 million will help. Lance Lynn was a nice pickup too to go with the young talent on the White Sox.

The Blue Jays sprung George Springer from the Astros, who once again are in Tank Mode, and that was a move the Blue Jays had to make as they spent $150 million on Springer, the kind of hard-nosed player every winning team needs. They added relief help too in Kirby Yates and took a flyer on Steven Matz’ big left arm. They have a young core that needs to learn how to win in October. The Blue Jays have all of Canada behind them so they can afford to spend cash. They owe their fans, their country, big time. They own two World Series titles: 1992-93. That’s it. Embarrassing. So yeah, spend money.

The Cardinals have a history of success and they treat their fans right. Can’t pick on the Cardinals. The Nolan Arenado trade should work out for them and the odds on them winning the World Series vastly improved after the trade. We’ll see.

Let me help. You were benched because you stunk, Gary. You couldn’t catch and you couldn’t hit. There, now you know. Play better.

It will help to have Yadier Molina return as the leader they need. He will push Arenado, who basically told his Colorado teammates they were not good enough to win. Arenado is a tremendous third baseman and hitter but with Molina (he must be re-signed) and Paul Goldschmidt taking on leadership roles, that frees Arenado from something that he is not best suited for, and will allow him to play his game. Clutch stats must be better than last short season too when he hit .179 with runners in scoring position and .083 with two outs and RISP. Arenado will have to produce. The player friendly atmosphere in St. Louis should help Arenado find a happy baseball home again.

And let’s not forget the rest of the NL Central has quit on the game as far as trying to put the best teams they can on the field. The Cubs evidently are happy with one World Series win just about every 100 years or so. It’s more important to build up the club’s power base of real estate around Wrigley Field. The Red Sox, by the way, are trying to do the same thing in Boston, and don’t get me started again on the Mookie Betts trade that gave the Dodgers a World Series win.

Love what the Padres are doing and they appear to be the most exciting team in baseball at the moment. You have to pull for a team with shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. at the center of it all. Additions Blake Snell and Yu Darvish give them starting pitching cred.

Same goes for the Mets and Jacob deGrom & Co. The Mets somehow always get in their own way and they continue to do so this offseason even with a new owner with the Jared Porter GM hiring and subsequent firing and the Mickey Callaway (when he was Mets manager) troubling situation. Once the games start though, the Mets should come together quickly and adding catcher James McCann and shortstop Francisco Lindor provides strength up the middle in a strength up the middle sport. Good moves.

Fernando tatis, Jr

San Diego is a tough team not to pull for... unless you're a Dodgers fan.

A lot of teams aren’t worth talking about at this juncture, they have to earn it so if I neglect to mention your team in detail there is a reason for that – and there is not much to say at this point about the Reds, A’s, Giants, Royals, Tigers, Pirates, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Brewers.

Seattle is everyone’s favorite team of the future with young talent but let’s see some wins and a division title at least in a really, really bad division, the AL West. It’s the same song every year from GM Jerry Dipoto. Seattle hasn’t been in the postseason since 2001. Their next World Series will be their first World Series. Fifteen of the last 17 years the Mariners have played under .500 baseball. Summer is the best time of year in Seattle. It’s also the worst if you are a Mariners fan buying tickets. Stay for the food and the great ballpark, leave for the game.

Before we take another step, there is a chance for salvation here for all the teams in the majors. Trevor Bauer is still hanging around as a free agent and his addition can push a team over the top if he has another season like last season when he mainly faced the “Can’t Score NL Central.’’

Bauer did his job no matter the competition and that’s the bottom line. From the beginning he was the most intriguing free agent of the offseason and that remains the case. Some team can prove it is trying to win merely by signing Bauer. Go for it.

Let’s review the Going Backwards List since there are so many teams going backwards.

That list includes in no particular order: the Rays (see Blake Snell above), Indians, Orioles, Red Sox, Tigers, Pirates, Angels (despite having talent), Royals, A’s, Rangers, Mariners, Brewers, Rockies, Giants, Reds, Cubs and Diamondbacks. If the Angels add Bauer, they move up big time.

Most of those franchises can’t get out of their own way and every few years trade in a bad GM for another bad GM or ownerships sinks them from within because of money issues. The Rays were the best story in baseball last year until they decided to blow it up in Game 6 so it will be fascinating to see how they react this season.

There is another category the Rays could fit in as well: Status Quo Teams. Now these teams with the right moves could zoom up the ladder of success. I am not totally burying them but they could do more for their fan base. The Yankees are at the top of this Status Quo list. They should be in the same category as the White Sox, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Padres, Dodgers and Mets, and they are close to being there – but they continue to step on their own foot on occasion.

They get Gerrit Cole last year but they don’t go the extra mile and pick up another stud starter. You need at least two in the postseason, fellas. As a result they could not get past the ALDS even with their Game 2 trickery. Genius move.

They essentially followed the same winter game plan this season, swapping out Masahiro Tanaka for Corey Kluber and wishing on a past star. They also are betting on nice guy Jameson Taillon who has had two Tommy John surgeries. Kluber has thrown 36 innings over the last two seasons, so yes, this a Time Machine gamble by Brian Cashman as the Yankees gun for what would be only their second World Series victory in the last 21 years. They re-signed DJ LeMahieu. That was a no brainer.

What is perplexing is the Yankees continue to bet on catcher Gary Sanchez, who was so upset he was benched last October, telling ESPN’s Marley Rivera, “I didn’t know why I wasn’t playing.’’ Good job by Rivera to get Sanchez to open up, but really, Gary.

Let me help. You were benched because you stunk, Gary. You couldn’t catch and you couldn’t hit. There, now you know. Play better.

The Yankees and Cashman have empowered Sanchez yet again this year by not getting a new catcher. Yes, the Yankees made life difficult for Sanchez throwing a new catching style his way. I said last year they would miss Didi Gregorius at shortstop and I’ll say it again, they will miss Didi Gregorius at shortstop. For all his talents, Gleyber Torres is best suited as a second baseman not a shortstop. The Yankees defense remains an issue.

The Twins are also a status quo team having at least re-signed Nelson Cruz. That had to be done. Step up and sign Bauer. That is a much bigger splash than J.A. Happ.

The Phantastic Phillies are treading water as well but at least the front office has an adult in the room in Dave Dombrowski. It’s stunning how bad that bullpen was last year. A better bullpen would make them a much more interesting team, but with the way the Mets have improved and the Braves being solid even without one more hitter, the NL East is a beast. The Nationals have made some moves and lefty Brad Hand should help the bullpen but pretty much are the same deal.

If more teams were really putting more money on the line trying to win, it would make baseball that much more a must-see sport. Most of these teams are hoping from a bailout from Commissioner Rob Manfred in the form of “expanded playoffs’’ again so they can brag about being a playoff team in a watered-down playoffs but it is highly doubtful that will happen at the last minute again this year like last short season.

Bottom line: This is This. My three favorite words from the 1978 film The Deer Hunter.

Most teams are set up for another disappointing season. In so many ways it is Groundhog Day again this season. Crank up the music. I Got You Babe.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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