You can always tell when spring is in the air, and I’m not just talking about blooming flowers and plenty of pollen. It’s the irresistible smell of hot dogs, burgers and carne asada after firing up the grill. It’s time a crack open a cold beer and tailgate at your favorite ball yard.
Opening day festivities sort of took some of us by surprise this season because fans were still buzzing with excitement over the World Baseball Classic. That tournament also confirmed that the game is still numero uno and America’s Favorite Pastime. Why? The final teams left standing for the trophy were from the USA and Puerto Rico, our cousins with territorial ties. Still, a glimpse at the 40-man rosters of all 30 teams proves that Hispanic players are starting to dominate the scene. Spanish is spoken in every dugout, and a new generation of super stars are about to take center stage. So, let’s bring you up to speed on the new MLB season and take a look at the game’s Latino heroes.
PLAYERS IN DIFFERENT UNIFORMS
The Cubbies borrowed the services of the Cuban Missile to win the World Series last season, but now the lefty flame-thrower is back in The Bronx where he prefers to play with the Yankees. Chapman, 29, will receive $86 million over the next five years in New York, and tandem with Dellin Batances to create the most dynamic bullpen powerhouse in baseball, although the latter reliever has struggled early on. Another question that remains is whether the Yankees have enough starting pitchers to make Chapman’s presence worthwhile.
The Dominican outfielder/DH bailed on the Blue Jays to fly south and add another potent bat in the Cleveland Indians lineup. Encarnacion joins Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Yan Gomes and other Latino big shots to make the Tribe legit again this season.
Carlos Beltran (headline photo)
The veteran Puerto Rican switch-hitter inked a one year, $17 million deal to become a Houston Astro in what might be his final big league gig. Beltran will be worth every penny in his leadership role as a “big brother” to Carlos Correa, not to mention balancing a lineup that already includes Jose Altuve, George Springer, Yulieski Gourriel and Marwin Gonzalez. It should be a fun and successful year in Houston, a city with a unique cosmopolitan atmosphere.
Loaded with starting pitching, the St. Louis Cardinals felt like they could part with their only southpaw and traded Garcia to the Atlanta Braves. Perhaps a risky decision for the latter team, given the possibility that the Mexican could walk as a free agent next year. But the Braves hope to be respectable in their new stadium, and also signed the ageless Bartolo Colon to bolster a pitching staff led by Colombian phenom Julio Teheran. Could Atlanta, who have also added all-star second baseman Brandon Phillips to the mix, be a dark horse contender? Maybe.
The emotional Dominican turned down a hot pursuit by the Braves to accept a two year, $22 million offer by the Miami Marlins. That’s a lot of dinero for a pitcher who, although performed well in Pittsburgh, has been a mixed bag on the hill throughout his career. Volquez will attempt to partially fill the void created by the tragic death of Jose Fernandez. Not sure if that will happen, but it was the best the Marlins front office could do given the fact that the franchise is in complete disarray. Owner Jeffrey Loria wants to cash in his chips and sell the team, perhaps to a group led by former Yankees captain Derek Jeter. Fish fans are praying that will happen.
The former Astros third baseman moved further west to sign a two year, $15 million pact with division rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Unfortunately, the 31 year old Venezuelan started the season on the DL with a hamstring issue.
The Cuban-American center fielder agreed to a one year, $8 million deal with the World Champion Cubs. The move basically allows Chicago pencil-in Jay to replace Dexter Fowler, who moved on to St. Louis.
Other changes in scenery include Wilson Ramos, who will be the new backstop in Tampa Bay. Jean Segura will add infield depth to the Seattle Mariners, and Yovani Gallardo also moves to the great northwest to add pitching strength. Suddenly, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz have a supporting cast, along with maturing closer Edwin Diaz, to become contenders. The key of course, will be Felix Hernandez, the club’s longtime ace who doesn’t throw nearly as hard as in earlier times.
The Cardinals were wise to keep their future Hall of Fame catcher in the fold. The Puerto Rican will earn an annual salary of $20 million in each of the next three seasons.
The controversial Venezuelan, known more for his offensive game rather than glove work, signed a new deal to remain with the Texas Rangers for the next six years. The package is worth $49.5 million.
The 33 year old veteran has been slowed down by minor injuries out of the gate. But the Marlins are extremely loyal to the versatile Venezuelan, and inked him to a three year, $40 million contract this winter. Given Prado’s reputation as Mr. Clutch plus his clubhouse leadership, it was money well-spent to keep Martin in Miami.
The Blue Jays were unwilling to give Bautista, now 36, a multi-year deal. But Toronto kept their Dominican slugger around for one more season at $18 million, plus a mutual option for 2018. After losing Encarnacion, it was vital to keep Bautista’s bat in the lineup if the Jays are to contend again.
The Dominican is a valuable bridge in the Cubs bullpen, especially now with the loss of Chapman. Still with an electric arm, even at 31, Strop added some security for his family with a two year pact worth about $12 million.
The flamboyant Cuban outfielder has made his home in four different cities, but he prefers the bright lights of Broadway. So at age 31, Cespedes told the New York Mets he was ready to settle down, and the front office obliged with a stunning four-year, $110 million deal. Yoenis will have to bite the bullet this season and bank only $22 million, but will pocket $29 million in each of the next three campaigns. Did the Mets overpay the new face of its franchise? Absolutely. But that’s the price of doing business in the Big Apple.
POST SEASON TEAMS AND WHY?
Boston Red Sox
Acquiring Chris Sale from the White Sox was key, especially with the injury to David Price. The team will miss Big Papi, but the offense still has plenty of balance and speed.
The pitching isn’t the greatest, especially the starting rotation. That said, the Indians should light up the scoreboard and Andrew Miller will be ready to slam the door. Additionally, this is a club that is approximately 35 percent Hispanic and play extremely well together.
Picking up Brian McCann shored up the only weak spot, catching, in the Astros game. It would be nice to pick up another pitcher or two before the trade deadline. But this is a team with offense and speed galore, and the defense is another plus. Too many stars on this club not to win, even though they play in a division that has vastly improved.
Kansas City Royals
Last year’s hangover has passed and the Royals will return to October baseball before a partial makeover in 2018. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar may have a limited future in Kansas City, but they are still around along with Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon. This is a close-knit group that will fight hard to win in the memory their late warrior, Yordano Ventura. Will the Royals make it back to the Fall Classic? Probably not. But they won’t go down without a fight. Too many clutch players.
New York Yankees
Call us crazy to include the Yankees in this elite group. Catcher Gary Sanchez has joined shortstop Didi Gregorius on the shelf, and this team hardly resembles the Bronx Bombers of old. However, New York has several potential stars in Greg Bird, Arron Judge and Arron Hicks. They added a new DH in Matt Holliday and still have speed and gap power with Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Starlin Castro. The bottom line will be the consistency of starting pitchers Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, C C Sabathia and Luis Severino.
Easy call here. Superior starting rotation, power bats and additional speed with newcomer Adam Eaton. The bullpen is an enigma and needs improvement. But this team is too talented and quite possibly could win 100 games.
Another no brainer, just because the young and talented Cubs look to be contenders at least until 2025. The infield of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Anthony Rizzo is set for eternity. The outfield is equally adequate. If Chicago has a weak point, it’s the pitching staff beyond Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta. The pen too, is suspect after the loss of Chapman. It’s just that there are too many positives here to keep the Cubs from returning to the post season. Another World Series win? That’s a tougher call.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Our crystal ball will be accurate here as well, because this is by far the best team on paper. The problem with the Dodgers is that they are notoriously bad in the post season. To be fair, the team has had to deal with serious injuries among starting pitchers in the past, but such hiccups are part of the game. We will see if the boys in blue can ditch that jinx this season. One possible fix could be a full year of success for Mexican phenom Julio Urias, but the 20 year old lefty didn’t even break camp with the 25-man roster. More help could come from a healthy Hyun-Jin Ryu, which would cause L.A.’s Little Korea to flood Chavez Ravine. Lots of possibilities here for Dodger success.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Red Birds will be back in the hunt after a race to the finish line with the Cubbies. The pitching rotation is solid and the team has has a nice mix of veterans and young players, from Jhonny Peralta and Matt Carpenter to Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. And then of course, there’s Yadi Molina who does everything except order the clubhouse buffet.
I like the Fish in a photo finish with the New York Mets, just because Miami has a much deeper group of core position players. An infield of Prado, Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon are highly underrated, but nobody doubts the excellence of Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton. And then there’s Ichiro who can still weave his magic. It’s clear that the Mets have superior pitching, but the Marlins have more sharks in the tank, and motivation generated from the loss of Jose Fernandez.
Esteban “Steve” Randel …Headline photo courtesy of chron.com